By Peter Amsterdam
January 3, 2023
The first of Paul’s and his partners’ letters to the Thessalonians is divided into five parts. The first part, the introduction (in 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10), is the shortest, containing ten verses.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.1
When addressing the church of Thessalonica, Paul acknowledges that the founding of the Thessalonian church was not due to the efforts of Paul, Silas, and Timothy, but rather was due to the work of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The greeting “grace and peace” is found in virtually all of Paul’s letters, though it is sometimes expanded to “grace, mercy and peace,” as seen in 1 Timothy 1:2 and 2 Timothy 1:2. It is likely that this expression of “grace and peace” was derived from the secular or Greek greeting chairein and then “Christianized” with the similar-sounding word charis, meaning grace. One author explains: Paul adds charis to the typically Jewish greeting “peace” so that the new combination of “Grace and Peace” results in a salutation that is truly inclusive of his Gentile Christian and Jewish Christian audience.2
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.3
In this letter, as in many of the other epistles, Paul and his partners state that they constantly give thanks to God for the Christian community.4 Toward the end of the letter, they will again call the church to a similar life of thanksgiving.5 Paul and his companions likely remembered the names and faces of those in Thessalonica whom they had recently had to leave.
The way in which Paul gave thanks for the believers was by making mention of you in our prayers. Later in the epistle he writes: We pray most earnestly night and day.6 This suggests that Paul, Silas, and Timothy met daily for prayer and thanking God for the believers in Thessalonica. The phrase making mention is commonly used in the New Testament as the act of offering petitions through prayer. For example:
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers.7
I do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers.8
I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers.9
It's interesting to note that Paul’s intercessory prayers start with giving thanksgiving to God rather than presenting petitions to God. This is contrary to the attitude that some Christians have that prayer is almost exclusively a means to make known one’s needs to God.
The first reason why Paul and his fellow missionaries always give thanks to God is because we constantly remember your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father.10 It’s interesting that here Paul speaks positively about “your work of faith,” whereas elsewhere within his writings he makes it very clear that people are not saved by works of any kind. However, when the question of salvation is not the focus, Paul often speaks positively of the good works that believers perform. Elsewhere, Paul refers to this as faith working through love.11 The phrase “work of faith” as used here refers to Christian activity which is rooted in faith.
The second phrase, “labor of love,” is often understood to mean doing acts of service without the expectation of reward or praise; however, that is not the meaning here. Rather “labor of love” here refers to deeds that are rooted in love. Paul doesn’t specify which deeds he is speaking of. However, the objects of that love were the other members of the Thessalonian church, as is mentioned later in this epistle.
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia.12
Paul was likely referring to the self-sacrificing labor that believers undertook as they served both those inside the church as well as the outside community. Their faith and love generated work done for the benefit of others.
Paul speaks of the steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Other translations refer to the patience of hope (NKJV), the enduring hope (NLT), and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (TNIV). This enduring hope is the ability to remain steadfast and persevere when faced with suffering or temptation. Throughout the New Testament there are references to such endurance.
You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.13
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.14
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.15
Paul became concerned about the believers in Thessalonica in his absence, because of the persecution they were faced with as well as the temptations of Satan to turn them from the faith. However (as seen later in this epistle), the Thessalonians endured and kept the faith despite the temptations they faced.
We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.16
Paul then presented the most important reason for their thankfulness to God: that He has chosen them. Paul believed that God had chosen the Thessalonian believers because of the way the gospel had come to them: because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
Throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people were chosen by God to be His people. However, here Paul refers to the gentile Thessalonian believers as being chosen by God. This was a radical departure from the pre-Christian view.
In this letter, Paul refers to the Christian brothers (some translations use brothers and sisters, since the believers would have included both men and women). He refers to brothers (meaning believers of both sexes) 19 times throughout this letter. This gives us a window into how the members of the early church identified themselves.
After Paul showed his confidence that the Thessalonian believers were loved and chosen by God, he went on to explain that the gospel came not only with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.
Paul went on to say: You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. He pointed out his and his partners’ character, conduct, and methods, which the Thessalonians observed while they were with them. They knew the type of people these missionaries were. Their honorable character was part of the message they preached.
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.17
Earlier, Paul had told the Thessalonians that God had chosen them (v. 4), and now he adds that because they received his teachings, they had become imitators of both Paul and the disciples as well as of the Lord. These believers emulated the suffering and adversity of Jesus and of the apostles. Throughout the New Testament there is further encouragement to imitate the leaders of the church.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.18
I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.19
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.20
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.21
The exact nature of the affliction the Thessalonians suffered is not specified, but was hinted at when Paul referred to “in much affliction.” One author explains:
It probably did not involve physical death and martyrdom but more likely entailed severe social harassment and ostracism. This opposition involved “such difficulties as their alienation from unbelieving family members and friends; the curtailment of their opportunities to maintain, let alone to improve, their current economic and social status; the restriction of their access to the city’s political and social institutions; and their constant subjection to harassment and public issues.”22
The lives the Thessalonian Christians lived, despite the persecution they received, was a powerful example to others. Thus, Paul rejoiced that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. One author commented: Verse 7 is the only text in the NT where a whole congregation is viewed as a model for other churches. This was an exceptional church in the way they responded to persecution. Molded by the example of the Lord, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, they themselves now become a model for others.23
Not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.24
Some Bible commentators consider this sentence awkward. However, the difficulty is likely because Paul combined into one sentence two related, but distinct, activities which the Thessalonians carried out: the preaching of the message (“the word of the Lord”), and a conversion (“your faith in God”). The phrase, “the word of the Lord” is found only one other time in Paul’s letters (2 Thessalonians 3:1). Usually he uses the phrase “the word of God,” which is found nine times throughout his writings. In the Old Testament, “the Lord” refers to God (the Father); whereas in the New Testament, “the Lord” refers to Jesus Christ.
The phrase sounded forth from you (some translations say rang out from you) tells us that the message reverberated out in all directions. The picture that Paul portrays is that the gospel message continued to echo forth from the Thessalonian Christians throughout Macedonia, Achaia, and beyond. Paul doesn’t specifically say how the Macedonian believers spread the gospel to others; however, the reference to “the word of the Lord” indicates that it was through some form of sharing and teaching the gospel message. In the second half of the sentence, your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything, the image that Paul presents is of a sound—the gospel’s message—which emanated from the Thessalonian Christians and carried on throughout all of Macedonia and beyond.
They themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.25
In these two verses (vs. 9–10) Paul explains how he and those with him came to know about the witnessing efforts of the Thessalonian believers. The Thessalonians had shared the gospel with those in Macedonia and Achaia. They themselves report refers to those in Macedonia and Achaia who had heard the gospel from the Thessalonians. These people reported to Paul about the kind of “entrance” the apostolic team had in Thessalonica, and how the Thessalonians had converted to God and moved away from idolatry.
This second part of the report (vs. 9b–10) mentions how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. It was no small feat for the Thessalonian believers to step away from the idolatry of Thessalonica. The renunciation of the pagan gods meant that the new Christians were rejecting a number of social events which were associated with the worship of the Thessalonian gods. This caused resentment and anger from their non-Christian family members and friends. The new Christians’ refusal to participate in the worship of the local gods offended many of the Thessalonian citizens and caused them to see the Christians as atheists.
The people of Thessalonica were probably concerned that the gods they worshipped might punish the city with plague, famine, or other natural disasters. Turning from idols also meant that they were rejecting the gods of Rome, which could damage Thessalonica’s status with Rome. The conversion of the Thessalonian Christians was a major break from their previous way of life, and it resulted in the resentment of the other citizens of Thessalonica.
Paul goes on to refer to the Thessalonians waiting for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. Paul included three descriptions of God’s Son from heaven, who will one day return from the heavens: (1) He is the one “whom he [God] raised from the dead,” (2) “Jesus,” and (3) “the one who rescues us from the coming wrath.”
The first description connects to a central teaching of the early church: the resurrection of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, several verses attest to God raising Jesus from the dead.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.26
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.27
He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.28
The second description, the name Jesus, puts the focus directly on Jesus in order to transition away from the Father and His raising Jesus from the dead. The focus here is the activity of Jesus and His return from the heavens. Later in this epistle, Paul refers to the resurrection of Jesus when dealing with the issue of those who die before Jesus returns.
The third description speaks of the returning Son who delivers us from the wrath to come.29 Being delivered or rescued is mentioned throughout Paul’s writings.
He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.30
My persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.31
For many, the thought of God’s wrath is difficult to understand. One author writes:
God’s wrath must be seen in light of his justice. God is indeed loving and kind, but his justice demands that sin, which is such an affront to his holiness and supreme majesty, be punished. It must also be remembered that the wrath of God is not like human anger, which so often is expressed in a vindictive and uncontrolled manner. God’s wrath instead represents a necessary and just response to human sin.32
Instead of fearing the future judgment, the believers in Thessalonica had hope, since they knew Christ would return and rescue them. As Christians, we have that same hope, knowing that we will be with Christ forever.
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 1 Thessalonians 1:1.
2 Jeffrey A. D. Weima, 1–2 Thessalonians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 71.
3 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3.
4 1 Corinthians 1:4, Colossians 1:3, 2 Thessalonians 1:3, 2:13, Philemon 1:4.
5 See 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
6 1 Thessalonians 3:10.
7 Romans 1:9–10.
8 Ephesians 1:16 NAS.
9 Philemon 1:4 NAS.
10 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3.
11 Galatians 5:6.
12 1 Thessalonians 4:9–10.
13 Luke 21:17–19.
14 Romans 5:3–4.
15 Colossians 1:11.
16 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5.
17 1 Thessalonians 1:6–7.
18 1 Corinthians 11:1.
19 1 Corinthians 4:15–16.
20 Philippians 3:17.
21 Philippians 4:9.
22 Victor Paul Furnish, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Abingdon Press, 2007), 46–47.
23 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 99.
24 1 Thessalonians 1:8.
25 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10.
26 Romans 10:9.
27 Galatians 1:1.
28 1 Peter 1:20–21.
29 1 Thessalonians 1:10.
30 2 Corinthians 1:10.
31 2 Timothy 3:11.
32 Weima, 1–2 Thessalonians, 122.