Of all the letters that Paul wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Thessalonian Epistles are the earliest that the Lord in His grace has preserved for the edification of the church. Evidently they were written from Corinth after persecution drove Paul from Berea. At his request, Timothy and Silas had remained behind and gone on to Thessalonica. Then they had come to Corinth to report to Paul on the condition of the young church.
According to Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Paul had preached the gospel on three successive sabbaths in the Jewish synagogue at Thessalonica. How much longer he remained in the city we are not told, but it could not have been very long. The results of his short visit were remarkable. Quite a group were brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of these converts were Jews, but the majority were apparently Gentiles who had been taught to see the folly of idolatry and led to put their trust in the living God as revealed in His Son.
Paul was deeply concerned about these young converts. They seemed to be like sheep without a shepherd, although of course he realized that the great Shepherd was ever watching over them. Paul told us he had no rest in his spirit while he waited for news about them because he feared that Satan might take advantage of those so recently brought to Christ. However, the report of Timothy and Silas was most encouraging and led to the writing of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
Note that the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is referred to in some way in every chapter of this Epistle. Although the letter was addressed to babes in Christ, the apostle realized the importance of giving them clear instruction regarding this great theme.
Today we are often told that Christians need not give much thought to the doctrine of the second advent. Many ministers have no clear convictions regarding it and never preach on it at all. In the classrooms of theological seminaries this doctrine often becomes just a theme for academic discussion. But to Paul the second advent was a tremendously important and exceedingly practical truth that needed to be emphasized because of its bearing on the hearts and lives of God’s beloved people.
First Thessalonians 1, which tells how the gospel was received in Thessalonica, closes with a picture of a group of happy believers earnestly serving God while waiting expectantly for the return of Jesus Christ.
Apostolic Salutation (1 Thessalonians 1:1)
Note that Paul’s fellow laborers, “Silvanus, and Timotheus,” are linked with him in this greeting to the young converts.
The expression “the church… which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ” is peculiar to the Thessalonian letters. Of course it refers to the same church that is elsewhere spoken of as “the body of Christ,” but here the emphasis is on the new relationship into which these young Christians had come. They were now linked in infinite grace with God the Father; they were His children. They owed their new position in the family of God to the Lord Jesus Christ, who had given Himself for them.
When Paul said, “Grace be unto you, and peace,” he was not speaking of the grace that saves from judgment, but the grace that sustains from day to day. Neither was he speaking of peace with God; his readers had already made their peace with God. Paul was referring to the peace of God, which is the abiding portion of all who trust in the loving Father and seek to walk in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Prayers (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4)
In 1 Thessalonians 1:2 Paul referred to his prayers for his readers. It is remarkable how often the apostle spoke of bearing up God’s people in prayer. He was a man of intense activity: preaching, visiting from house to house, often working at tentmaking for his daily bread. Yet he found time to intercede with God on behalf of all the churches that he had been used of the Lord to found. He also remembered in prayer many Christians he had not even met, as in the case of the Colossians.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:3 Paul linked the three graces about which he would later write in the Corinthian Epistle: faith, hope, and love. In Thessalonians the order is different and he spoke not simply of these graces themselves, but of the spiritual realities connected with them: the “work of faith,” the “labour of love,” the “patience of hope.”
Faith, we are told elsewhere, “worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6). James insisted that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). The young Thessalonian converts showed their faith by their work.
Love, to be real, must be self-sacrificing. Therefore we read of the “labour of love.” It is one thing to talk about loving our brothers, loving Israel, loving lost souls; but our love is not genuine unless we are willing to labor earnestly for the blessing of those for whom we profess to have this deep concern.
The hope of the believer is the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We may long for the day when trials and tribulation will be ended and Christ will take us to be with Himself, but we are not to be impatient as we await that glad consummation. Christ Himself, seated on the throne of God, is the epitome of patience. “The husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain” (James 5:7). Thus Paul spoke of the “patience of hope.”
During all the centuries since Christ ascended to Heaven, as we count time on earth, He has waited patiently for the end of the church’s testimony. Then the Lord will descend in the air to call His own to be with Him, and the change that the poet has expressed will be true of all believers:
He and I in that bright glory
One deep joy shall share:
Mine, to be forever with Him,
His, that I am there!
In 1 Thessalonians 1:4 we learn that Paul prayed knowing “your election of God.” How did he know this? Had he been permitted to look into eternity’s books where his readers’ names had been written before the foundation of the world? Had God revealed to him His divine sovereign decrees? Not at all! Paul saw in the lives of the Thessalonian believers so much evidence of the new birth that he had no question concerning their election. Paul knew that the fruit of the Spirit which he saw was not a natural gift, but the outflowing of the new life in the power of the Holy Ghost. Such evidence convinces others of our election also.
Paul’s Ministry (1 Thessalonians 1:5-10)
In 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 the apostle summarized the effects of his ministry among the Thessalonians. He began by saying in verse 5, “Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.” The gospel of course must come in word. It is the business of the servants of Christ to proclaim the word of the truth of the gospel to a lost world. As 1 Corinthians 1:21 tells us, “It pleased God by the foolishness [simplicity] of preaching to save them that believe.” But the mere statement of gospel truth, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, is not likely to produce results like those that were seen in Thessalonica.
It is true that God in His sovereignty may use His own Word, no matter who proclaims it, or even if it is only read; He has often done so. His general method, however, is to empower devoted men to set forth the Word with clarity and in the energy of the Holy Spirit. Then the results are assured. The Lord Jesus told His disciples, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:8). Another rendering of the verse reads, “Ye shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and ye shall be witnesses unto me.” The importance of speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit should never be ignored. To mistake human eloquence or oratory for preaching in the power of the Spirit of God is a great mistake. Someone has well said that “preaching is eloquence touched with fire.”
In the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his companions proclaimed the gospel as they went from place to place. The result of their proclamation was that people were led to trust in Christ and also received “much assurance.” It is a lamentable fact that a great deal of what passes for gospel preaching today would never give assurance of salvation to anyone. Sermons that are theologically correct but make no true application to the needs of the hearers, are “clear as crystal, but cold as ice,” as someone has said. When the Word is preached in simplicity and in the energy of the Holy Spirit, those who believe the gospel receive the full assurance of faith.
Paul added some exceedingly significant words to 1 Thessalonians 1:5: “Ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.” He and his companions were careful to walk before God in holiness of life and in righteousness toward their fellow men. A holy minister is a tremendous weapon in the hands of God for the pulling down of the strongholds of sin.
Ralph Waldo Emerson complained, “What you are…thunders so that I cannot hear what you say.” What a shame that this has often been true of ministers of Christ! Integrity of life, devotedness of heart, and holiness of spirit should characterize the proclaimers of the gospel of grace.
The self-denying ways of Paul and his companions made a deep impression on the Thessalonians, for he wrote in verse 6, “Ye became followers [imitators] of us, and of the Lord.” It may seem strange that he spoke here of himself before he spoke of the Lord, but we need to remember that these new believers had never heard of the Lord—and probably never would have heard of Him if Paul had not gone to them. It was what these converts had seen in Paul and his companions that had led them to be interested in the things of the Lord. Then, having trusted in Christ, they took His servants as role models and, in imitating them, were really following the Lord.
The Thessalonians had “received the word in much affliction, with joy.” This sounds paradoxical and indeed it is; but the Christian may be “sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). The affliction to which the apostle referred may have been twofold. There was of course deep contrition as the Thessalonians recognized their sinfulness and mourned over their years of ungodliness and idolatry. Then too they knew that to decide for Christ would in many instances mean separation from loved ones, grievous misunderstandings, and even bitter persecution. But they were prepared for all this. They had counted the cost and decided that Christ would mean far more to them than temporal comfort or worldly prosperity, so they joyfully received the message that told them of sins forgiven and the hope of Heaven.
So great was the change in their lives that others soon noticed it. They were examples, we are told in 1 Thessalonians 1:7, “to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia.” Thessalonica was one of the chief cities of Macedonia; Achaia was the neighboring province. To one city after another the word went forth of what had happened in Thessalonica, where Paul had labored so earnestly. They who had been converted through his preaching became preachers themselves. No one needed to question the reality of their conversion; their lives made it evident that they were in touch with God.
The Thessalonians had experienced real conversion. First Thessalonians 1:9 tells us that they had “turned to God,” and in turning to God they had turned “from idols.” The words are in a different order in Acts 14:15. There in speaking to the men of Lystra, Paul said, “[We] preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God.” The two passages are not contradictory; both suggest that conversion rests on true repentance. To repent is to change one’s mind—that is, to reverse one’s attitude. And so the Thessalonians who had been idolaters turned to the true and living God. They were through with idolatry. Today when men trust in Christ and bow before God in repentance, they turn from the things of a godless world and yield themselves to the One who died to redeem them.
Following the conversion of the Thessalonians, they had a new attitude: they were motivated to “serve” and “wait” (these two words from 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 cover the whole Christian life). They sought to serve the living and true God while they waited for His Son from Heaven. We are sometimes told that focusing on the second coming of the Lord has a tendency to throttle Christian activity. It is said that people with such a focus can become dreamers who are sidetracked with prophetic questions and are no longer interested in living for God and seeking to win others for Christ. Frankly my own experience teaches me that the contrary is true. My observation is that the more this blessed truth grips a man’s soul, the more concerned he is about serving God and winning others to Christ. This was true of the young Thessalonian believers. They lived day by day in the expectation of Christ’s return. They looked for Him—the risen and ascended One—to come back again as their Deliverer from “the wrath to come.”
The wrath referred to here, I think, is not eternal judgment. From that wrath, believers have already been delivered. Paul was referring to the wrath that will come upon the world. Evidently the apostle had intimated to the Thessalonians that such a time of trouble is coming, but he had also told them that Jesus will come to snatch His own away before this wrath is let loose.
The Lord has promised to come for His own before the trumpets of this wrath begin to sound and the judgments of the great tribulation fall upon the world. His coming for His own is still the hope of His saints.