An Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

© 2023 C. O. Bishop

1st Thessalonians 1:1-10; Acts 16:12-40; Acts 17:1-10

Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters:

In Acts 16 and 17, we see the background for the letters we are about to study. In Acts 16,  Paul and Silas had planted a small church in Philippi, in a very short time. They had encountered a young slave woman, there, who was demon-possessed. They freed her from that possession, but they suffered beatings and imprisonment for their trouble.

Why planting a Church at Philippi became a “Short-term Mission:”

There, at Philippi, they met Lydia, who took the missionaries into her home. She supported them in that way for the few weeks that they remained in Philippi. They also met the Philippian Jailer, who, through a miraculous sign, was convinced of his need for a Savior. He begged Paul and Silas to tell him how he could be saved. They told him in simple terms, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” (Acts 16:31) They had already told him the Gospel: Now, he believed, along with his entire household, and was baptized.

But the city magistrates asked them to leave, because they were afraid they would be in trouble with Rome, for having beaten Roman citizens who were not convicted of any crime. So, Paul and Silas visited Lydia one last time, and comforted the new believers they were leaving behind, and then they left Philippi, probably still bleeding from those beatings.

Yet Another “Short-Term Mission:

In Acts 17:1-10, Paul and Silas passed through two towns, Amphipolis and Apollonia, and arrived in Thessalonica, a city in northern Greece. (It is still there, today, but the name in Greek is “Thessaloniki”) It was the capital of one of the four Macedonian districts of Rome.

The Jewish community there was relatively new when Paul arrived, but they had a synagogue, and as was their regular practice, Paul and Silas presented the Gospel to the Jews first. (Why? Because Jesus was the fulfillment of their (Jewish) scriptures, and He was their (Jewish) Messiah. Paul always gave them the first opportunity to receive the Lord.)

The Source of the Trouble

Paul and Silas preached Jesus as the Messiah, right there, in the synagogue. For three sabbaths, running, he showed them from scripture the necessity of the Messiah having been executed and rising from the dead. This was a confusing idea to the Jews. They had read all the scriptures about the Messiah, but the picture they had formed in their own minds was that of a “champion” who would “drive out the Romans and all other enemies of Israel.”

The notion that the Messiah had to be executed, fulfilling Isaiah 53, and Psalm 22, and to physically become their true Passover, was just too strange. And rising from the dead, though plainly taught in Isaiah 53:10, and Psalm 16:10, was apparently simply beyond their imagination.

Some Believed!

But, as strange as the message was to them, some of those Jews believed, and a large number of the Greek Proselytes believed, too, as well as a number of important women of that community.

But the unbelieving Jews were moved by envy, and they deliberately gathered those who would be willing to start a riot. They attacked the home where Paul and Silas had been staying, but the two missionaries were not there. So, they seized Jason, the homeowner, and some of the new Thessalonian believers, and they dragged them before the magistrates.

False Accusations

The accusers claimed that Paul and Silas were causing trouble, and teaching people to disobey Roman Law. Of course, that was a total fabrication: they had done no such thing. However, the Magistrates demanded a bond of Jason and the others, anyway. and let them go. But the damage was done: It was too dangerous for both the new believers and for the missionaries, if Paul were to remain in Thessalonica, so Paul and Silas were forced to leave town, by night, and they headed off to Berea.

A Functioning Church in Less than a month!

It is important to notice that they were only in Thessalonica for a minimum of two weeks plus a few days, up to a possible maximum of a month…they preached three sabbath days. (If they had showed up on a Sunday or Monday, say, and preached that Sabbath, and the two following Sabbaths, but were run out of town before the fourth sabbath, then it would have still been less than four weeks.) Why is that important? Only because I find it amazing that they left a functioning church in Thessalonica, with qualified leadership, after such a short time!

How was that possible?

Remember; they offered the Gospel first to the Jews and to the Gentile proselytes. That group of men was already well taught in the written Word. All it required was that they learn how the Old Testament taught the Messiah, and that Jesus completely fulfilled all the prophecies. They believed, and were truly committed to Him from the first. Once they believed, they stepped from being responsible, faithful men of God in the Old Testament sense, to being very responsible and faithful men of God in the New Testament sense; and essentially overnight!

Qualified Leaders

Those qualified leaders were filled with the same Holy Spirit as were Paul and Silas. They had the Written Word to study, and there really was no option for Paul and Silas to stay…so they stepped into their new responsibilities and became the first elders in the Thessalonian Church.

Did they need further teaching? YES! That is why these two letters were written! But these letters are addressed to us as well. Paul wrote these two letters to encourage the believers in their new faith. But remember that he had left a small, healthy, functioning church there, after less than a month’s contact. There is no reason that believers today cannot grow into maturity much more rapidly than they seem to do in our country, today.

So, as we begin to read through the letters to the church at Thessalonica, let’s try to read carefully, to see what they already knew by the time Paul and Silas left.

1st Thessalonians 1

1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, 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.

What can we learn from the Salutation alone?

  • Paul and Silas and Timothy, (and the other apostles authorized by Jesus) never went around calling themselves by any honorific term, such as “Reverend, the Right Reverend, Vicar, Father, Bishop, Archbishop,” or any other such title. They just went by their first name! (Never “the Apostle Paul” or any such title.) They did not elevate themselves over the people.
  • This letter was to the church, not to the church leaders.
  • They recognized the position of the believers: The believers were in God, and in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is our position as believers, even when we are not “living up to what we know to be right.” The position is permanent.
  • As always, Paul offers Grace first, then Peace. If you have not received God’s Grace, in Salvation, you cannot be at peace with Him, let alone experience the peace of God. In John 14:27, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you: My Peace I give unto you. Not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” That peace (both with God and of God) was bequeathed to His disciples. Only believers can receive it!

What were Paul and the other missionaries thankful for?

We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. 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 for your sake.

And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost. So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.

For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; 10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

Let’s list the things Paul mentioned in verses 6-10. They were thankful for:

  1. The Believers themselves!
  2. Their Work of Faith
  3. Their Labor of Love
  4. Their Patience (endurance) of Hope
  5. Their Election of God
  6. They became followers, not just of “Paul & Co.,” but of the Lord Himself
  7. They received the Word in much affliction, but,
  8. They also received the Word with the Joy of the Holy Spirit.
  9. Their Testimony spread everywhere!
  10. They became examples throughout the entire Roman world where Paul traveled: everyone knew of their testimony and their transformed lives. Wherever Paul went, the people he met told him about the church at Thessalonica!

The Testimony of Thessalonica

What was told to Paul wherever he went? The testimony was powerful and effective, but what did it include? The people in faraway places had heard of the church at Thessalonica:

They knew about the riotous response of the unbelieving Jews. They knew that the Thessalonians had been idol worshippers. They knew how the Thessalonian believers had turned to God, which resulted in their turning from their idols. (It is never the other way around: we do not “clean ourselves up” so we can approach God. We come to Him as guilty, helpless sinners, and He cleans us, from the inside.)

They knew that the Thessalonian believers were waiting for Jesus’s appearance from Heaven. (So, they knew of the Second Coming!) They knew about the Resurrection. They knew that Jesus had saved the believers from the coming Judgment. That is quite a testimony!

What about the matter of “Judgment?”

We are often told that “You should focus on positive things: don’t belabor the topics of ‘Sin, and Guilt, and Judgment!’ People are far more attracted to a Loving God!”

That sounds good, but: Jesus spent far more time and energy warning the world of the coming Judgment than He did trying to explain the Glories of the Coming Kingdom, (much less describing Heaven itself.) And, in John 12:32, Jesus said that His Crucifixion was what would draw people to Him. Not all the subsequent blessings He offered! It was the Judgment!

The bad news of Sin and Judgment is necessary for the Good News of Christ to make any sense. If His death was not for the specific purpose of freeing us from the wrath of a Holy God and the eternal judgment to come, then it is not good news at all! It is a tragic miscarriage of Justice, wherein the Only truly Good, and Righteous One was murdered! That is not “Good News!”

But virtually all “Good News” is predicated on some preexisting “bad news.”

The bad news, in this case, was that I was lost and on God’s Death Row, for eighteen years, because God says “the wages of Sin is Death.” But the terrible news is that it was not only I, but also the whole human race, suffering under that same condemnation. And, since we have no way to “unbreak God’s Law,” we were doomed, unless He chose to extend His Grace to us. And He did exactly that, by substituting Himself for us at the Cross; taking our sins upon Him and suffering the Judgment of God, Himself.

Think about it: If there are no consequences for our sin, or for the overall wickedness of the whole human race, then what are we to be “saved” from? He was given the name Jesus, (meaning “Jehovah is Savior”) because He was to “save His people from their Sins!”

Those Thessalonian believers knew all this, and other people had heard about it through them. We need to grow to have that kind of testimony, ourselves! We need to grow!

Lord Jesus, train us up as Your disciples. Fill us with Your Spirit and let us shine as lights in this dark World. Give us the Wisdom to know how to act and what to say…and the courage to do Your Will.

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