1 Thessalonians

A Compassionate Letter to a Consecrated Church

A shepherd without sheep is like a leader without followers, a coach without a team, a president without an organization, or a captain without a ship. There is a sense of emptiness and a passionate longing to be back at one's station in life. So it was with Pastor Paul when he was painfully forced (2:17) to leave his beloved congregation of relatively new believers behind as a result of Jewish envy over his spiritual success (Acts 17:5-7) and political correctness exercised by the city fathers (Acts 17:8-9).

To ease his agony, Paul sent Timothy from Athens back to Thessalonica on a mission to see how the church had fared since his involuntary departure (3:5) and to strengthen their faith (3:1-2). When Paul's young disciple returned to Corinth (Acts 18:5) with an encouraging report of their faith and love, not to mention growing affection for their exiled pastor, Paul gave thanks to the Lord (3:6-9). Yet, he deeply and passionately beseeched God that he might return, knowing that their spiritual need would continue with passing time (3:10).

But since he could not be with them in the near future, Paul did the next best thing and wrote First Thessalonians as a compassionate letter to this consecrated assembly. In so doing, Paul had two major objectives in mind: first, he expressed himself personally over: (1) his affection for them; (2) his reflections on their progress in the gospel; (3) false allegations about his integrity; (4) his concern for their spiritual well being; and (5) his desire to one day return in person (1:1-3:13). Second, the apostle addressed them pastorally about issues that Timothy surely must have included in his post-visit debriefing (4:1-5:28).

1. Personal Comments (1:1-3:13)

Paul was so overjoyed with Timothy's most encouraging news of a healthy, vibrant church (3:6-8), albeit a persecuted church (2:14-15), that he put pleasure before business and wrote from the heart in the first three chapters of this letter (just about one half of what Paul penned). From 1:1-2:16, he thought back and reflected on his prior experiences with them and their subsequent progress in the gospel. Then, he updated them on events and his thoughts that had transpired since he departed (2:17-3:13).

A. Paul's Greeting (1:1)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1).

1:1 This represents a typical salutation in the first century ad (cf. Acts 15:23; 23:26) with three parts: the writer(s); the recipients); and the greeting(s). The three chief participants in the second missionary journey appear in Paul's opening words. It would seem apparent that these are the ones whom the Thessalonians would have identified as their first pastors, Paul being the leader and thus first in the greeting. The apostle's sense of ministry being a team activity would best account for all three names being included here, rather than the thought that this letter was somehow written by them all.

The ministry of Paul, former Saul (meaning 'asked for', cf. 1 Sam 9:2) of Tarsus (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-2), dominates the book of Acts. This man, whose Roman name Paul means 'small', was identified with the Jewish name Saul by which he is known until Acts 13:9 when Luke writes that he was also called Paul. Never again in Acts after 13:9 (except in recounting the past) is he referred to as Saul. Most likely, in accord with the custom of the day and because Paul was a Jew born as a Roman citizen (cf. Acts 22:28), he was given both names at birth by his parents. When he began his ministry to the Gentiles, Paul became the preferred name.

Paul's dramatic conversion (c. ad 33) from a self-righteous, Christian-killing, and church-destroying Pharisee to a true believer in Messiah is recounted three times in Acts (9:1-22; 22:1-21; 26:1-18). See A Time-line of Paul's Ministry (page 11) for a summary of his four missionary journeys, thirteen epistles, and two Roman imprisonments. Other autobiographical details emerge in bits and pieces from his epistles (cf. 2 Cor 11:16-12:10; Gal 1:11-2:21: Phil 3:4-6; 1 Tim 1:12-17).

The apostle's physical stature has been described by one ancient as 'a man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel' (Acts of Paul and Thecla 3). But, whatever Paul might have lacked in outward appearance, he more than made up for it in natural abilities and spiritual endowments. This man, who called himself the foremost sinner (1 Tim 1:15) and the least of saints (Eph 3:8), stands unique in the annals of Christendom as one who combined the fervor of an evangelist/church planter, the tenderness of a shepherd, the diplomacy of an ambassador, and the intellect of a scholar. In light of his stellar credentials, he surprisingly did not introduce himself as an apostle (cf. 2:7), even though he does in later letters (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1) where there was not a prior intimate relationship.

Above all else that could be said about Paul, he was commissioned by God to go to the Gentiles with God's gospel of grace (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:20, 23). To the heavenly commission, he proved obedient as demonstrated by his ministry (Acts 13:46-47; 14:27; 15:3, 12; 18:6; 21:19; 28:28) and declared in his letters (2:16; cf. Gal 1:16, 23; Eph 3:8; 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 4:17). Thus, Paul turned to the Gentiles in Thessalonica (cf. 1:9-10) after only three Sabbaths in the synagogue (Acts 17:2).

Silvanus, a Roman name meaning 'woodland' (only in 1:1; 2 Cor 1:19; 2 Thess 1:1; 1 Pet 5:12), is called Silas in his other thirteen New Testament mentions by Luke in Acts. He is first encountered in Jerusalem at the Council which decided on crucial matters relating to Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15:1-29). As a leading man (Jewish by birth) in the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 15:22), he with Judas (both prophets, Acts 15:32) accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch with a letter declaring the Council's decisions (Acts 15:32).

Silas, also a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37), either remained in Antioch (cf. Acts 15:34) or, after going back to Jerusalem, returned to Antioch and was therefore selected by Paul to go on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:40). He is mentioned by Luke in conjunction with visits to Philippi (Acts 16:19, 25, 29), Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), Berea (Acts 17:10), Athens (3:1; Acts 17:15), and Corinth (Acts 18:5; 2 Cor 1:19). After the second missionary journey, Silas does not appear to have been involved with Paul in ministry again. He apparently later became the secretary to Peter (1 Pet 5:12) which probably accounts for the Apostle's warm words towards Paul in his second letter (2 Pet 3:15).

The final member of this ministerial trio, Timothy (meaning 'honoring God'), became Paul's chief disciple (Phil 2:19-22; 2 Tim 2:2; 4:1-8), even though here he is on his first journey with Paul, having been 'well spoken of' by the brethren in Derbe and Iconium (Acts 16:1-3). Since Paul elsewhere speaks of him as 'a true son in the faith' (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2), it is possible that Timothy believed at Paul's preaching on the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14), even though he was raised by a godly mother and grandmother (Acts 16:1; 2 Tim 1:5; 3:14-15). Timothy's father was an unbelieving Greek (Acts 16:1).

Timothy remained faithful to Paul from the beginning (Acts 16:1-2) to the end (2 Tim 4:21). Paul dispatched him on the second journey to Thessalonica (3:2); on the third journey to Corinth (Acts 19:22; 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10); to Philippi during the first Roman house arrest (Phil 2:19); and to Ephesus during Paul's final travels (1 Tim 1:3). He is named in the salutation, not only in both Thessalonian letters, but also in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and even Romans 16:21. Paul also wrote two canonical letters to Timothy. At some time, Timothy was imprisoned and later released (Heb 13:23), presumably after Paul's death.

Paul very specifically identifies the recipients as the churchof the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Thess 1:1). This addresses his beloved flock corporately, geographically, and spiritually.

As a group of people they were the church (ekklēsia) or, literally, the 'called out assembly'. The word ekklēsia can refer to either a secular or religious gathering. It is used in the New Testament: (1) of the riotous mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:32, 39, 41); (2) sparingly of Israel (Acts 7:38; Heb 2:12); (3) frequently of a local church (Acts 5:11; Rom 16:5; Col 4:15); (4) of churches in a geographical region (1 Cor 16:19; Gal 1:2); and (5) of the universal church (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 1:22; Col 1:24).

Specifically, this was the company of those who had been called out of sin unto salvation, out of darkness into light, and out of idolatry into worship of the true God (cf. 1:9). With rare exceptions, church in the New Testament refers to the gathering of true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul very carefully identifies this church geographically as of the Thessalonians. A similar designation is used 'of the Laodiceans' (Col 4:16). The local church was made up of those from Thessalonica who had believed in Christ, whether they be Jew or Gentile, free or slave, male or female.

The most important qualification in identifying the group to whom he wrote is that they were in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This would spiritually distinguish them from the Jews of the synagogue who rejected Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:5) and the civic assembly of the people who believed Christianity to be politically subversive (Acts 17:8-9). These were people who had a special redemptive relationship with both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 17:21, 23; Gal 3:3; Eph 1:4, 7, 13). The Father and the Son (cf. 1:10) are inseparable (Matt 11:27-30; John 14:6; 1 John 2:23).

The close proximity of God the Father (cf. 1:3; 3:11, 13) and the Lord Jesus Christ and His equality with the Father point directly to the deity of Christ. The triune relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is assumed, since Paul will shortly speak of the Holy Spirit in 1:5.

Paul indicates three truths about the Savior by using His full title, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1:3; 5:9, 23, 28). First, He is Lord (kurios) or Jehovah of the Old Testament, which points to His deity. Next, as Jesus, He is declared to be human; His earthly name means 'Jehovah saves' (cf. Matt 1:21). Third, as Christ He is the long promised Messiah or Anointed One of the Old Testament (cf. Isa 61:1-2a; John 1:41). Paul's twenty-four uses of Lord, sixteen uses of Jesus, and ten uses of Christ in 1 Thessalonians portray the richness of Christ revealed in His true character.

Having thoroughly identified the recipients of this letter, the apostle briefly, but warmly, greets them with a typical Pauline remark—Grace to you and peace. Some Greek manuscripts additionally have the phrase from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is easier to explain this as a later addition by scribes, since every other Pauline letter gives a similar greeting and states the source of grace and peace, than it is to explain a later deletion, especially in light of Paul's pattern. The same sort of scribal addition appears in Colossians 1:2. However, 2 Thessalonians 1:2 does contain the full greeting.

Grace (from God) or God's unmerited favor is the Divine benevolence by which Christians are saved (cf. Eph 2:8-9) and peace (with God) is the fruit of no longer being at enmity with God (Eph 2:16-17) and thus no longer in danger of His eternal wrath (cf. 1:10; 5:9). God the Father is 'the God of peace' (5:23; 2 Thess 3:16); God the Son is 'the Prince of peace' (Isa 9:6); and God the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of peace in the lives of true believers (Gal 5:22). God's peace stands in stark contrast to the counterfeit peace preached by false teachers (5:3). Paul here evokes God's blessing upon this precious congregation.

Study Questions

  1. Paul called himself the foremost sinner (1 Tim. 1:15) and least of saints (Eph. 3:8). Who else had a bad past and yet was appointed by Christ to significant service? Do you find this encouraging?
  2. Do you habitually think about God in the Trinitarian way that Paul did (cf. 1:5)?
Overview The Thessalonian Church (1:1)

The Apostle's intimate correspondence to the church, which he dearly loved, reveals the basic fibre of the Thessalonian assembly. These letters let one look below the surface, examine the very heart of the flock, and identify twelve important hallmarks.

1. Committed Church

To each of the seven churches of Asia, Christ remarked, I know your works'. Just as Jesus commended the church at Ephesus for her 'deeds', 'toil', and 'perseverance', Paul commends the Thessalonians for their work, labor, and steadfastness (1 Thess 1:2-3). The same three Greek words are used in both instances to describe these two churches.

'Faith' in Christ had produced works, just as God had designed the outcome of salvation: 'For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them' (Eph 2:10). As newly redeemed bondservants, they gladly worked on behalf of their Lord Jesus.

'Love' for Christ took their works to a deeper level called labor or toil. Because of Christ's sacrifice on their behalf, they now sacrificed on His behalf. They spared nothing in their spiritual service, always working to the point of exhaustion.

'Hope' towards Christ's return produced the ultimate level of commitment, i.e. steadfastness or perseverance. They would stay with their kingdom labor on earth until their Lord and Master called them away to be with Him in heaven. They would be found at their Christ-appointed service until the end.

The Thessalonians committed themselves to gospel service. Not satisfied with ordinary or average work, they labored long and hard on Christ's behalf. They intended' to do this as long as it pleased Christ.

Their commitment proved genuine. After Paul sent Timothy to strengthen them, he returned with a wonderful report of their 'faith' and 'love' (1 Thess 3:6). Even more telling, Paul commends the Thessalonians in his second letter because their faith was greatly enlarged and their love for one another had grown greater (2 Thess 1:3).

2. Submitted Church

'You became followers of us and of the Lord' (1 Thess 1:6). As Hebrews 13:7 exhorts, the Thessalonians imitated the faith of their spiritual father and his associates. They lived out Paul's admonition to the Corinthian church: 'Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ' (1 Cor 11:1).

As children submit to and obey their father and mother, so did the Thessalonians to their spiritual parents. But the Thessalonians' submission went a step further. They would have found it easy to submit in good times; however, their submission also came in a time of persecution and hardship.

Paul notes that they received the Word in much tribulation (1 Thess 1:6). The church began with instant spiritual conflict (Acts 17:1-9) and seemingly never knew a moment of peace, but continued in persecution. Because of these obstacles and distractions, the church suffered the same way as did title churches of Judea earlier (1 Thess 2:14). They were submissive at the highest level.

3. Reproducing Church

The Thessalonians took Christ's Great Commission seriously (Matt 28:18-20). Having first been an example to other believers, they then spread the gospel wherever they went (1 Thess 1:7-8). The gospel spread in the city of Thessalonica, the region of Macedonia, beyond to Achaia, and wherever else the Thessalonians travelled outside of their own national boundaries.

Although the text does not explicitly say so, a little sanctified imagination can picture the Thessalonians discipling other believers and evangelizing unbelievers. Undoubtedly, other churches came into being because of their spreading the gospel.

4. Repentant Church

The Thessalonians had turned from the false to the true God in their salvation (1 Thess 1:9). Their 180 degree turn, spiritually speaking, involved completely turning away from idols and completely turning towards God (Acts 11:18; 2 Cor 7:10).

Unlike the church at Sardis, which claimed to be alive although Jesus declared her to be dead (Rev 3:1-2), the Thessalonian church had actually been dead but was now alive. They had been converted by gospel preaching (1 Thess 1:5), then opposed false religion rather than participated in it (Acts 17:5-9), and openly declared their allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1:8).

5. Serving Church

The Thessalonians understood that service to God befitted their new status of being Christians (1 Thess 1:9). Christ is Lord and they were His servants. While they remained on the earth, they were not to attempt to make God their servant or indulge themselves in the wealth of the world. Rather, they now would serve God rather than mammon (Matt 6:24).

Paul's example had been to serve the Lord (Acts 20:19). He instructed the Colossian church, Tor you serve the Lord Christ' (Col 3:24). When one had a perfect Master, the only reasonable and spiritual response was to serve Him.

6. Patient Church

With confident expectancy, the Thessalonians awaited Jesus' return (1 Thess 1:10). He promised, 'I will come again' (John 14:3). The angels proclaimed, 'This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven' (Acts 1:11).

The Thessalonian church was a 'second coming' church. Their hope rested in the glorious thought that one day Christ would return and deliver them from a sin-filled world. The Thessalonian believers, like the believers on Crete, were looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus (Titus 2:13).

7. Accepting Church

How can we explain such radical change in people's lives as was seen in the Thessalonians? How does a church mature as fast as the Thessalonian assembly? By the power of God's Word working in them (1 Thess 2:13). They began with God's Word (Acts 17:1-3) and they continued in God's Word. They didn't doubt, hesitate, accept some and reject some; rather, they completely accepted Paul's message as God's message.

God's Word is the power of God to save (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18). God's Word is the power by which Christians grow (1 Pet 2:1-3; 2 Pet 3:18). God's Word goes forth with a promise that it will accomplish God's bidding (Isa 55:11). This power by which God works in us is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think (Eph 3:20).

8. Persecuted Church

No one actively seeks put persecution. While it seemed to purify the church at Smyrna, persecution could not fully cleanse Pergamum. Suffering comes by the will of God (1 Pet 3:17; 4:19) and is not normal for all churches. But persecution quickly found the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:14-16).

Time did not diminish the pain and conflict In his second letter Paul writes, 'so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure' (2 Thess 1:4).

Suffering for righteousness' sake finds favor with God (1 Pet 2:20). Suffering as a Christian glorifies God (1 Pet 4:16); being reviled for the name of Christ brings blessing (1 Pet. 4:14).

This wonderful promise awaits those who now suffer on behalf of Christ 'But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you' (1 Pet 5:10).

9. Staunch Church

When Timothy returned to Paul, he reported that the Thessalonians were 'standing firm' (1 Thess 3:8). The church had started in the midst of spiritual warfare and had grown in the same environment. They were battle-hardened veterans from the beginning. Even though the church had existed for less than a year when Paul wrote, the believers exhibited maturity beyond their years.

The Thessalonians refused any spiritual retreat. They stood their ground without compromise. Because they burned their secular bridges behind them, the only way to go was forward. While the enemy would not always allow them to advance, the Thessalonians purposed not to give up the ground that had already been gained for them by Christ

10. God-Pleasing Church

Obedient churches please God as did the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:1). Pleasing God is an important part of salvation's fruit:

For it is God who works in you both to will and to work on behalf of His good pleasure (Phil 2:13).

Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20-21).

Paul's top ambition was to please the Lord (2 Cor 5:9). Jesus testified, 'I always do those things that please Him' (John 8:29).

11. Loving-the-brethren Church

Loving is the most often mentioned 'one another' in Scripture. On at least ten other occasions the same activity is addressed (Rom 12:10; 13:8; 1 Thess 3:12; 4:9; 2 Thess 1:3; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11; 2 John 5).

Jesus said, 'By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another' (John 13:35). This contrasting truth is also taught, 'Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law' (Rom 13:8).

Even as well as the Thessalonians must have been doing, Paul exhorts, 'Increase more and more' (1 Thess 4:10). The church needed to grow continually in love towards one another.

12. Praying Church

Paul had great opportunities to preach the gospel. He understood that evangelism needs to be undergirded by effective prayer. So he asked the Thessalonians to pray for his ministry that the Word of God would spread rapidly and be glorified, just as it had been in the beginning at Thessalonica (2 Thess 3:1).

A more important prayer request could not have been rendered. Therefore, one can conclude that the Thessalonians had already demonstrated their faithfulness to an earnest ministry of prayer. Thus, Paul could entrust this supremely important matter to their prayer ministry.