A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 1: Model Believers
Paul was a missionary who established churches around the Mediterranean Sea. His second missionary journey took him to Greece, then known as Macedonia and Achaia. Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). When the jealous Jewish leaders rioted in the city, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea. Paul later fled to Athens. He sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonian believers (1 Th. 2:17-3:3) while he went to Corinth. Timothy brought news of how they were standing firm despite opposition.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.
Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (1 Th. 4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the coming of the Lord; and living as a Christian. In part one we look at model believers.
“Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Th. 1:1).
The letter begins by telling us who it was from. Whenever he could, Paul worked with others, and here he mentioned them by name. He also referred to the believers as “the church” in Thessalonica. In the Bible, “church” refers to a group of believers, not a building. Because the Greek word for “church” meant any gathering of people, the believers were referred to as being “in God … and … Christ” to distinguish them from pagans, as the rioters in Ephesus were also referred to as an “assembly” or “church” (Acts 19:32). Years later, the word “church” came to mean a gathering of Christians, instead of a gathering of any kind.
Saying they were “in” God the Father and Christ indicates two relationships. First, the Greek word for “Father” means “a nourisher, protector, upholder.” God’s relationship to a believer is that of father to child. Second, the Greek word translated “Lord” was a title for one with power and supreme authority, such as Caesar, the absolute monarch. It could be translated as “ruler,” “master,” “God” or “owner.” It was also a title of honor and respect, with which servants greeted their master. Christ’s relationship to us is that of master to servant. Christians are those who confess “Jesus as Lord” (Rom. 10:9,13). By placing “God” and “Christ” together, Paul says Christ is part of the godhead.
“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually 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” (1 Th. 1:2-3).
Paul regularly prayed for these believers. They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for the changes in their lives – their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith,” their “labor prompted by love,” and their “endurance inspired by hope.” His thanksgiving preceded instruction.
Their “work produced by faith” was their conversion; they “turned to God from idols” (1:9). Faith is exercised when a sinner accepts the Savior and then lives in that faith. Faith is the act of trusting God (Jn. 6:28-29). This work includes the life of faith which follows conversion. Their “labor prompted by love” was their service for God motivated by love for Christ; they served “the living and true God” (1:9). Their “endurance inspired by hope” was their anticipation of Christ’s return. They waited “for His Son from heaven” (1:10; 4:13-18). Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up.
Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.
Faith In Action
“For we know, brothers 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 with deep conviction” (1 Th. 1:4-5).
This letter was written to both men and women. The Greek word for “brothers” means “brothers and sisters” or “the community.” Here, Paul commended all the Christians in Thessalonica and called them model believers. And he reminded them of two things. First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4). The Bible teaches that people have the choice to accept or reject the gift of salvation. They accepted.
The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified as the source of that power. Fourth, “with deep conviction” they knew that Paul spoke for God and they gave their lives to Him. They accepted that Paul spoke God’s Word, “which is at work in you who believe” (1 Th. 2:13). His Word changes people as they obey it (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). They heard the message and acted upon it and it changed their lives.
Love In Action
“You know how we lived among you … You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers … The Lord’s message rang out from you … 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” (1 Th. 1:5-9).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-7), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known. Trust in God is needed to spread the gospel effectively. They did this so well that Paul didn’t need to repeat the gospel message.
The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many forms of idols, from carved images to strong desires to possess things (Col. 3:5). Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).
Hope In Action
“They tell how you turned to God from idols … to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:10).
They were also waiting for Christ’s return (Jn. 14:3; 1 Th. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him. This can happen at death: “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It can also happen at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment.
Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance in spite of difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.
What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus’ rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Th. 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:21) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (Mt. 24:4-28; 1 Th. 5:1-11; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we come in contact with? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.
Published, January 2009