1 To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 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. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For 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. 9 For 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, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 ESV
The city of Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and enjoyed prominence and influence because of its strategic location along the Via Egnatia, a major Roman highway that linked the eastern and western parts of the kingdom. Paul’s first visit to the city took place during his second missionary journey, not long after his release from confinement in Philippi. Luke records the arrival of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica in the book of Acts.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. – Acts 17:1-4 ESV
While Paul and his companions had a dramatic impact on the city, they also ruffled a few feathers. Luke goes on to tell us that the local Jews became jealous and incited a mob against Paul and Silas. Things got so bad that a local believer named Jason was dragged from his home and accused of harboring insurrectionists. The local Jewish leadership accused Paul and his companions of spreading rebellion against the Roman government.
“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” – Acts 17:6-7 ESV
Fearing for their lives, Paul and Silas escaped under cover of darkness and headed to the city of Berea. But even with their abrupt and clandestine departure, they had left their mark on the Thessalonians. Paul eventually sent his young protege, Timothy, back to Thessalonica, in order to minister to the fledgling congregation there.
Paul’s greeting to the believers in Thessalonica reflects his love and concern for them. No doubt, he felt frustrated that he had been forced to leave so suddenly, leaving them without proper spiritual education and direction. But the opening paragraphs of his letter reveal that he had been encouraged by news of their continued growth. He compliments them on their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:3 ESV). The way they were living their lives gave ample evidence to Paul that they had been called by God and had experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. He assures them of their calling because “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV). Their lives had been changed and the message of the gospel was spreading throughout their community. In spite of the rocky start it had received. The animosity of the Jewish community most certainly did not subside with the departure of the missionaries. And Paul alludes to the ever-present reality of ongoing persecution the new believers faced, stating, “you received the word in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6 ESV).
The circumstances surrounding their acceptance of the good news had been anything but good. The Jewish converts to Christianity had been ostracized by their fellow Hebrews. Any Gentiles who decided to accept the gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ would also have faced strong opposition and even persecution. And yet, Paul states that, by their actions, they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7 ESV). Word had spread. News of their faith had made it well beyond the borders of Thessalonica and even beyond beyond Macedonia and Achaia. In fact, Paul informs them, “your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV). Their reputation for godliness in the midst of difficulty had been a source of encouragement to believers in cities as far away as Jerusalem.
And what was it that people were saying about the believers in Thessalonica?
…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. – 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV
What a testimony of God’s redeeming power. His Spirit had done a work among them, leading them to walk away from their former ways of life and to replace their false gods with worship of the one true God. And notice that their focus was not just on their salvation, but their future glorification, when Jesus returns for His bride, the church. Their focus was on eternity, their deliverance from the wrath to come. That means that they didn’t live expecting to have their best lives in this age, but in the age to come. They didn’t demand that God give them as easy life, free from pain and suffering. They were willing to wait for God’s future glorification and to put up with any present suffering they may encounter in this life.
Paul wrote of this future glory in his letter to the believers in Rome.
Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently). – Romans 8:18-25 NLT
The Thessalonian believers were guaranteed a place in God’s eternal kingdom. But in the meantime, they lived their lives in such a way that their faith was visible and recognizable to all those around them.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.