The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to the believers in Thessalonica, with Silas and Timothy serving with him. It is thought that this first letter is Paul’s first epistle that He wrote, at least of those which are part of the New Testament scriptures. The first letter is “friendly”, the second more detached. Thessalonica is part of Greece today, and, in the days of the Apostles, was on a main road from Rome to Asia, with a port on the Aegean Sea. The city had a mixed population, including a sizeable community of Jews.
As was Paul’s custom, he went first to the Jews of the city, and to the “God-fearers” – Gentiles who believed that the God of Israel was the true God, but who did not convert to Judaism. Paul’s primary calling was to take the gospel to unbelieving Gentiles, and to plant communities of the faith. But, being a Jew who loved his “brethren according to the flesh”, he always sought to tell them first the good news about the Messiah being Yeshua. The Jews of Thessalonica did not appreciate Paul telling God-fearers or other Gentiles that they could become part of God’s family without having to become Jews. Nor, of course, did most of them accept the grace of the only gospel to both Jews and to Gentiles for salvation through repentance and faith.
After a riot, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica after only a few weeks, and he went to Berea. He had to leave there, too, and went to Athens. Paul was facing opposition everywhere, and was fairly discouraged and depressed when he arrived in Corinth. But Silas and Timothy brought him encouraging news that the newly established congregation in Thessalonica was doing okay. So Paul then wrote his first letter to the believers there, what we call today 1 Thessalonians, written around 51 or 52 AD. Paul mentions in each chapter of this letter to these new believers that their future hope is in the coming again of Jesus as they remain faithful to Him and flourish in their faith despite persecution. The return of the Lord is an integral aspect of the gospel, even from the beginning of the new life. The Lord’s Supper is a continual reminder of that hope. (1 Cor 11:26)
v 1 Paul identifies himself as the author of the letter, along with Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Jn 14:23) This is the only place in the New Testament epistles that a congregation of believers are spoken of as being in God the Father. This relationship with God the Father is through, and subject to the lordship of, Jesus Christ/Yeshua the Messiah. Yeshua said that for those who believe in Him, He and the Father would come and dwell with them. So, with the Holy Spirit dwelling within the born-again believer, the triune God lives within us. We are not God, but God dwells within us.
In Athens, Paul quoted from a Greek philosopher that “we are also His (God’s) offspring”. (Acts 17:28-29) Naturally speaking, all humans have God as a Father, since we have been created by Him and in His image. Yet, because of sin, we have lost that privilege, and have generally become children of the father of lies, rather than of the Father of Truth. We must be born-again by the Holy Spirit from Above in order to be restored into a personal relationship with God as our Father, and this through receiving the redemption in the blood of the Son of God, Yeshua/Jesus. Yeshua told His own Jewish people who were rejecting Him but acknowledging that God was their Father: “If God were your Father, you would love Me.” (Jn 8:42) No one can know God as his/her Father except through knowing Messiah Yeshua as their Lord and Savior. New-born believers (spiritual children) are immediately brought into the knowledge of God as their Father. (1Jn 2:13c)
v 2-4 Paul and his two companions constantly thank God and to pray for these believers in Thessalonica, remembering their faith, love, and hope as they work and labor and patiently continue in hope. These three qualities – faith, hope, and love – are essential characteristics for a child of God to be found faithful and fruitful in our lives. We live by faith, are motivated by God’s love, and the sure hope of God’s promises and faithfulness keep us going. Without hope there is no will to persevere, even with love; without faith we cannot please God; without love we are nothing and profit nothing.
v 5 Paul reminds the believers that they did not receive the gospel from them in word only, but Paul and his helpers demonstrated the truth of the gospel and the holiness of God in their conduct while they were with them. This is important for us as we speak of evangelizing unbelievers, and discipling new believers: the unbelievers must not only hear, but see that we are living and acting in a manner that commends the truth to the hearers. They have to see the gospel in action and the assurance of our faith. It may also be, depending on the situation, that they need to experience answered prayer, deliverance from demons, healing from sickness. Beyond that, though, they must see that our faith and life is in the Lord, even without specific demonstrations of “power”.
Remember, God did many miracles and acts of power to bring His people out of Egypt and to preserve them 40 years in the desert. But once they entered the Land of Canaan, the miracles stopped, the manna no longer came down daily from the skies: they had to live by faith in obedience to Him, and not by acts of power and the supernatural only. This is generally the pattern when the gospel goes into a new region: many miracles and acts of power to show that the Kingdom of God has come. But afterward, the people need to live by faith in the living God, obeying Him, whether or not there are miracles.
Unbelieving Jews and Christians need to called to return to the Lord more than praying for God to show them a miracle. God will do what He will. Yeshua/Jesus told those who continue to demand miraculous signs from Him to prove who He was in order to believe in Him – despite all of the signs that He had already done – that the only sign He would give them was the sign of Jonah the Prophet. And for those who would not believe what Moses and the Prophets wrote, neither would they believe if someone rose from the dead. (Think, Lazarus, and, of course, Yeshua Himself, and the reaction from the general leadership and people.)
v 6-7 Paul, Silas, and Timothy encouraged these new believers how they became followers of these servants of the Lord, and of the Lord Himself. It is safe to follow someone when you have confidence that they are following the Messiah in their life and work, so that it is HIS life and HIS work in and through that ‘leader’. Disciplers need to make disciples of Messiah/Christ, and not merely of themselves. They received the word under difficult circumstances, and had joy in the Holy Spirit. And they began to evangelize in every place – just as the Apostles had — and people heard and knew that these were believers in Jesus. They were not “secret” believers, but glad to share the gospel truth to others, near and far.
v 8 As we heard from Alon’s testimony last week, our faith is to be shared openly, not kept a private matter. So, here, Paul is praising the believers in Thessaloniki that they have been speaking the word of God in every place, and that many have heard in their own region and beyond.
v 9 They demonstrated the power of the change in their lives upon repenting and believing the gospel, in that others could see that they had turned from serving idols to serve the living and true God.
It was a new thing for these Gentiles to hear that there was one living and true God to know and to serve, rather than worthless idols and lying demons; and also to hear that the Son of God was coming in the clouds of Heaven to judge the sins of men. This is the power of the light of the gospel to push back the darkness, and to overthrow the power of the Gentile gods and way of life. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says this same power works in the lives of Messianic Jews: “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh; how much more shall the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God!” (Heb 9:13-14)
v 10 Paul connects the faith – and the patience of hope that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ (v 3) – with our hope for the Lord’s return from Heaven, whom God raised from the dead, who will save us from [God’s] wrath to come.
As we heard last week from Albert, the Day of YHVH is coming, and will come. Our hope is the resurrection of the believers at that time, being spared from suffering His wrath on His enemies and on the enemies of His people. It is GOD’s wrath that we are spared from, not necessarily from Satan’s or evil people. But what is also important to notice in this last verse of the chapter, these fairly new believers already had a hope and expectation in the Lord’s return. The Holy Spirit gives us this hope and expectation, and the Lord’s Supper always reminds us of it. All Scripture is by inspiration of God, and are written for us living at the end of the age. These are not just the words of the apostle, but the Word of God. How much more should our expectation be than the believers from almost 2000 years ago?!
As children of light and of the day, this is the blessed hope that people need beyond knowing that their sins are forgiven. For God has not left us just to be forgiven, but with no other expectation and hope than unbelievers, as the world unravels. If it were a matter of our own works, that might be all we could expect. But we have been brought into much more because it is the work of Messiah, and we are a new creation, with eternal life with our Savior. And we have His promise that we will not suffer GOD’s wrath, which, as Paul writes, is coming upon the world that He created and made, but which is openly rebelling against Him and all that is good and holy. Our future is the coming again of the same Jesus who ascended back to His place after showing Himself alive following His suffering and death and resurrection.
Christmas is coming. If it were only a birth to be celebrated, it is no more significant than any other religious celebration of the birth of any other “famous person” in history. But this Yeshua was born to be the King of the Jews, and to be the Savior of the world. He did not die and get buried only: He rose from the dead because He is the Son of the Living God, and He will come again to rule the nations with equity! This is good news indeed!
This article originally appeared on Streams in the Negev, December 4, 2021, and reposted with permission.