The New Testament book known as 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest of Paul’s letters. The city of Thessalonica was located in northern Greece, along a great highway which linked the East and the West—the Egnatian Road. It extended all the way from Rome (over in Italy), to India and China (in the Orient). The road was kept in good repair by the Romans. Traffic was heavy; thousands of people passed through the city every year. Modern Salonika (as it is called today) is still an important city in the country of Greece.
The founding of the Church in Thessalonica is described in Acts 17:1-10. Paul stayed a number of weeks, preaching the Gospel of salvation, giving instructions about Christian living, proclaiming truth about Christ’s Second Coming. Paul preached three Sabbaths in a row in the synagogue, and there were a number of Jewish converts. There were also some Gentiles who responded to the call of the Gospel. The success of the Gospel was so great in Thessalonica, that the unbelieving Jews were “moved with envy” (Acts 17:5), and caused so much trouble that Paul and Silas had to be smuggled out of the city “by night” lest they be seriously harmed (Acts 17:10).
Paul and his co-workers went on to Berea, but some of the Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea and stirred up trouble there. Paul decided to go on to Athens, and while in Athens, he was concerned about the new Christians at Thessalonica. He sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to do further teaching there, and then later to report to Paul about the progress of the believers.
Timothy and Silas joined Paul later, bringing a good report about what was taking place in Thessalonica. Paul rejoiced because of the generally favorable report (1 Thessalonians 3:6). It was then that Paul wrote the letter which today we know as First Thessalonians.
The major theme of the Epistle centers around the Second Coming of Christ, but the focus is on the responsibilities we have for good living in light of Christ’s return. Every chapter contains some teaching about the Second Coming of Christ:
- (1:10) the expectation of Christ’s coming
- (2:19) the hope and joy of Christ’s return
- (3:13) the need to be ready for His return
- (4:16-18) the comfort which Christ’s return will bring
- (5:2-4) some details about the nature of Christ’s return
The primary emphasis in chapter 1 is on Paul’s thanksgiving for the Church. After the opening salutation (verse 1) and the expression of thanks (verse 2), there are many reasons given for Paul’s great expression of thanks.
1. The opening salutation (1:1-2)
“Paul, and Silvanus, and Timothy, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ; grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers.”
In our day (when writing a letter), you first address the person who is receiving the letter, and then at the conclusion your own name appears. In earlier times, it was the custom to begin the letter with the name of the sender, followed by the name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, which is followed by a customary greeting.
Silvanus was the Latin name for Silas. Paul wrote the letter, but Silas and Timothy endorsed everything that he wrote, and so the letter comes from the three co-workers.
The letter was addressed to the “church of the Thessalonians,” that was “in” God the Father, and “in” the Lord Jesus Christ—which means that the people were rooted in the Lord Jesus, and they were drawing life from Him. The message which Paul preached to the people of Thessalonica was an explanation of Christ crucified and raised again from the dead. He said, “This Jesus whom I preach unto you is Christ” (Acts 17:3).
The “grace-and-peace” greeting was more than a cordial wish. It was a promise of God’s grace and God’s peace to all those who believe. The two words are rich with meaning. “Grace” is God’s favor, pure and simple. “Peace” is the harmony that results when the soul is reconciled with God.
2. Paul’s expression of thanks (1:3-10)
It was Paul’s practice to begin his letters by thanking God for his readers. The expression of thanks in this Epistle illustrates the warm personal relationship Paul had with the new converts in Thessalonica. It demonstrates Paul’s deep feelings of joy, and his concern for people.
Paul assured the Church of his prayers for them (verse 2). In the days and months since Paul had left the believers at Thessalonica, he had been faithful in prayer for God’s blessing in their lives. Paul’s diligence in prayer should be a rebuke to us, who many times are not as burdened as we should be, especially for those who are out of sight for a period of time. Unless we keep a prayer list, we tend to forget the needs of some for whom we promised to pray.
We note too that Paul did not pray in mere generalities, but making “mention” of the Thessalonians specifically in prayer (verse 2b). If you want your preacher to be a better preacher, pray often for him. And preachers who want the people of God to grow in grace, must pray for them by name from time to time.
a) Thanks for their faith, love, and hope (1:3)
“Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ . . . and our Father.”
Paul expressed gratitude for the faith, love, and hope manifested by the people in the Church at Thessalonica. The “work” of faith includes their good deeds born out of their faith in Christ—such as caring for the sick, comforting the dying, teaching in a children’s Bible school, and preaching in a revival series.
The “labor” of love refers to wearisome toil which is expended by love. It describes a concern for others which does not stop with ordinary effort, but goes the second mile. It may involve faithfully performing tiring duties day after day to help someone who is sick. It may refer to an intense devotion given to spreading the Gospel even in the midst of persecution. The word “labor” carries with it the idea of suffering for the Name and sake of Christ, even to the point of exhaustion.
The “patience” of hope (better translated “the endurance of hope”) means that because we know that the Lord is coming again, we can courageously persevere even when times are hard, and the way seems discouraging. It is so easy to walk away from a task, and give up, and talk about quitting. That is true about a job, a marriage, and even about one’s relationship with a church. In light of the blazing hope of Christ’s return, we can face every circumstance, knowing that things that trouble us will be set right when Jesus returns.
b) Thanks for their election by the Father (1:4)
“Knowing, brethren beloved, your election (by) God.”
Paul calls the Thessalonian Christians “brethren beloved.” He uses that phrase 21 times in the two Epistles. Among these “dear brethren” were Gentiles and Jews, rich and poor, masters and slaves—but in Christ, they were all “dear brothers.” These, Paul says, are the “elect of God.”
The concept of “election” has often been distorted. Election means “a choice,” and in the Bible, the “elect” are those whom God has chosen to be His children, persons who are to be the heirs of eternal life. The phrase “election of God” does not imply that God is a tyrant who chooses some to be saved, and predisposes others to be lost. Election must always be studied in light of God’s foreknowledge; God can see into the future and He knows who will respond to the appeal of the Gospel. The general tenor of Scripture from beginning to end, is that election is God’s choosing unto life, by grace, of all those who savingly believe on Jesus Christ.
It is true that Jesus says, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). But John also announced that “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12). Election involves both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man.
The “elect” are those who have believed the message of the Gospel and continue in faith, and persevere in obedience. One writer says that our lives should be “so dead to the world, (and) so pure in doctrine and practice . . . that the world will see that nothing could produce this in us, but the influence of the Holy Spirit.”
There ought to be something so good and so wholesome about each of us, that our lives cannot be explained apart from the supernatural.
c) Thanks for the trustworthiness of the message (1:5)
“For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance, as ye know what manner of men we were among you.”
The Gospel made its way to the Thessalonians through Paul and his co-workers in a fourfold manner. The message came first with words, and then with power, and with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.
The message came “in word”—that is, the Gospel must be explained with words, because words are basic to good clear communication.
The message came “in power”—that is, the power with which the speakers were filled when they gave the message. When the Word is preached with clarity, God is there, and He is working. It is God’s power, not human cleverness that leads to conversions.
The phrase “in the Holy [Spirit]”—refers to the Person behind the power that was manifested when the speakers spoke. The Holy Spirit does some things that cannot be explained any other way, except to say that “God did it.”
The words “in much assurance”—mean that the preachers were absolutely convinced that the truth they were bringing was God’s Word, and not the mere opinions of men. Paul’s preaching was in the power of the Holy Spirit, and his messages were presented with certainty, boldness, and authority—so that those who heard, responded with penitence, faith, and obedience.
Paul’s message was not a presentation of guesses and theories. It was a strong, clear proclamation of the truth—about Jesus who is the Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
d) Thanks for their reception of the truth (1:6)
“And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.”
The Gospel was proclaimed in Thessalonica with much conviction (verse 5). In verse 6 we are told that it was received by the Thessalonians with much joy.
The message of the Gospel produced a powerful effect upon the Thessalonians. Whenever the Word of God is presented clearly, and obeyed—lives are changed. Christianity is more than a collection of interesting facts; it is the power of God for salvation to every person who believes (Romans 1:16). The Gospel has the power to blast the sinner out of his sins, and into the kingdom of God. It is powerful enough to make a liar tell the truth, and to change a fallen woman or man into a beautiful testimony for the Lord.
When the people in Thessalonica heard the Gospel message, their lives were transformed and their way of life was different from the way it had earlier been. Their conversion led them to imitate the lives of Paul and his companions. Paul encouraged new converts to follow his example, insofar as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). He did not hesitate at various places in the New Testament to ask people to copy his pattern of life (Galatians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:9).
While many rejoiced in receiving the message of salvation, it was received “in much affliction.” That is, many fellow Jews rejected the message and accused the preachers of proselyting. They were upset by the changes that the new believers were making. Converts were ridiculed by their families. Some of the new Christians may have lost their jobs. That sometimes happens in families today, especially if one member of the family receives Christ, and separates from the old way of life. Others tend to ridicule, and threaten, and even reject the new Christian.
e) Thanks for their exemplary lives (1:7)
“So that ye were examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia.”
The lives of the members of the Church at Thessalonica were transformed, and marked by a new vibrancy. The goals and standards by which they lived were completely changed. They embraced a new way of living, a new way of thinking, and a new disposition. All this was noticed by their neighbors. People soon sensed that there had been a genuine change in their lives—and thus they became an example for others. The Church in Thessalonica was an exemplary Christian community, and was widening its scope of witness.
Of no other church anywhere in the New Testament, is it said that it became a pattern, or a model church. In verse 7, Paul says that the Church at Thessalonica had become an example “to all that believe.” That’s quite a compliment!
The Christians at Thessalonica were becoming a pattern for people in the community, and so it should be with us. People should be able to say, “If we just loved one another like those Brethren do over there on Ridge Avenue”—that would be a marvelous testimony!
f) Thanks for communicating their faith to others (1:8-10)
“For from you sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith . . . God-ward is spread abroad, so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves show . . . what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye 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, even Jesus, [who] delivered us from the wrath to come.”
Instead of Paul’s telling others what had happened in Thessalonica, others were giving him a report about the Church in that Macedonian city. People had heard how many in Thessalonica had chosen to turn to God from idols, leaving their old way of life. This is a beautiful description of genuine conversion.
The Greek word translated “turned” (verse 9) is in the aorist tense, which means that the turning was a single, definite act. They made a deliberate choice, and in one sweeping decision, they turned to God and left their idols. And turning to God is more than just accepting right doctrine; it involves embracing a way of life in which serving God and others is given a place of top priority.
In a very brief time, Paul had led a number of people in Thessalonica out of darkness into the light of the Gospel. Along with the simple plan of salvation, he faithfully preached the truth about the return of Jesus at some unknown time in the future. And the message of Christ’s unannounced return spurs believers on in seeking to live upright lives. Also, it assures us that we shall meet our loved ones who died in Christ, as spelled out in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.
The Christians at Thessalonica were told to wait for the coming of Jesus—for He will deliver us “from the wrath to come.” And no doubt about it—wrath is coming. A Day of Judgment will take place. The closing chapter of 1 Thessalonians tells more about it. God will judge this sinful world—but Christ on Calvary provided deliverance for those who trust Him, so that we might be spared from the fury of God’s wrath. For genuine followers of Christ, the coming of the Lord will be a glorious event—and our hearts should be filled with a sense of excitement and expectancy.
The Thessalonians had been gripped by paganism and steeped in idolatry. Mount Olympus (where the Greek gods of mythology lived) was only 50 miles away. Their whole way of life previously was permeated by the worship of these false gods—but now they turned to the true and living God. What they once loved they now hated. What once dominated their thought life had now been placed under the blood of Jesus.
What kind of church was the congregation at Thessalonica?
1. It was a working church—their works of faith and also their labors of love are mentioned in verse 3.
2. It was a receptive church—they received the message from God’s Word with joy, as noted at the end of verse 6.
3. It was a missionary church—their faith and love and hope sounded forth all over the country (verse 8).
4. It was an expectant church—they were all the while waiting for the return of Jesus from Heaven (verse 10).
5. It was an exemplary church—the dramatic transformation and new life which was seen in Thessalonica, was an example worth copying. The Apostle Paul said to the Thessalonian Christians, “Ye were examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia” (verse 7). All believers will want to live in such a way that these same words can be spoken about the church where they live and serve.