Faith Under Fire

1  This letter is from Paul, Silas, and Timothy.

We are writing to the church in Thessalonica, to you who belong to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

May God give you grace and peace.

We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know, dear brothers and sisters, that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own people. For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true. And you know of our concern for you from the way we lived when we were with you. So you received the message with joy from the Holy Spirit in spite of the severe suffering it brought you. In this way, you imitated both us and the Lord. As a result, you have become an example to all the believers in Greece—throughout both Macedonia and Achaia. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-7 ESV

It had been a year since Paul and Silas first visited the city of Thessalonica located in the region of Macedonia in Greece. It had taken place on Paul’s second missionary journey. And the arrival of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica had been preceded by their imprisonment in Phillippi, for the crime of casting our a demon from a possessed slave girl, “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling” (Acts 16:16 ESV). With the demon gone, the girl lost the source of her ability to tell fortunes, so her owners were deprived of their source of income.

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. – Acts 16:19-24 ESV

But while Paul and Silas were in prison, a miraculous earthquake shook the walls and threw open the doors of the cells, freeing every prisoner and causing the guard to attempt suicide. But rather than allowing this man to take his own life, Paul and Silas introduced him to Jesus Christ, the source of eternal life.

The next day, the magistrates sent for Paul and Silas and, upon discovering that they were Roman citizens, apologized profusely, set them free, and asked them to leave their city. So, Paul and Silas made their way to Thessalonica.

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.” – Acts 17:1-3 ESV

The circumstances which took place in Phillipi are important when considering the actions of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica. These two men had falsely accused, violently beaten, and thrown in prison. And yet, while in prison, they had occupied themselves by “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25 ESV). When the earthquake provided them with the opportunity to escape, they had chosen to remain, using their freedom to help set the Philillian jailer free from his bondage to sin and death.

And as soon as these two men arrived in Thessalonica, they made their way to the local synagogue, where for three consecutive Sabbaths, Paul preached the good news of Jesus Christ to a room full of Jews. While in Phillipi, Paul and Silas had focused much of their attention on the Gentile population of the city, leading many of them to Christ. But Paul had a strong sense of compassion for his own people.

My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. – Romans 9:2-4 NLT

He longed to see his fellow Jews come to faith in Christ, which is why he always made it a habit to visit the local synagogue in every city he visited. But while Paul and Silas saw some positive responses to their message while in Phillipi, the overall reaction was less-than-ideal.

…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. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar… – Acts 17:4-5 ESV

In an attempt to get their hands on Paul and Silas, the mob stormed the house of a local believer named Jason, in whose home the two missionaries had been staying. Unable to find Paul and Silas, the disgruntled Jews dragged Jason before the city authorities, and accused him of harboring individuals who were promoting insurrection against Rome.

“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

Paul and Silas, forced to leave the city under the cover of night, traveled on to Berea, where Paul, as was his habit, made his way to the local synagogue. And this time, they were received with open arms and receptive hearts.

…these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed… – Acts 17:11-12 ESV

With all that as background, we turn to Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. What is amazing is that there was a church there at all. Paul and Silas had spent very little time in the city before they had been forced to flee for their lives. But while there, they had made an impact on the lives of few individuals.

…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 17:4 ESV

And it seems that Jason represented a small contingent of Christians who were already in Thessalonica when Paul and Silas first arrived. This fledgling group of individuals formed the church there in Thessalonica. And they had been helped by Timothy, Paul’s young protegé, whom Paul had sent to serve as their minister and pastor.

…we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith. – 1 Thessalonians 3:2 ESV

Now, a year later, while ministering in Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to this small group in order to encourage them in their faith. Unable to make a personal visit, Paul put his thoughts in written form, with the intention of offering this young congregation some much-needed words of encouragement, exhortation, and clarification.

Paul had become aware of the conditions surrounding the church in Thessalonica. These people had not had it easy since their acceptance of the gospel message. Their conversions had come with a high cost, in the form of persecution and, to a certain degree, confusion.

Thessalonica was a wealthy and influential city in the region of Macedonia. It was a predominantly Gentile community with strong ties to Rome. The individuals who came to faith in Christ immediately found themselves in the minority and facing intense hostility. Those Jews who placed their faith in Christ were ostracized from the local Jewish community and likely banned from the synagogue.

But Paul knew there was more going on than persecution and hostility. Like all new believers, these people were struggling with a certain degree of confusion. There was so much they didn’t know. Their knowledge of Jesus and their understanding of His ultimate return were limited. While they had received the anointing of the Holy Spirit and knew first-hand that the message Paul had preached to them was true, they were limited in their understanding of what the Spirit-led life was supposed to look like. Yet Paul was able to commend them for the faithful work, loving deeds, and enduring hope. In fact, they had become an example of faith for all the believers in Greece.

Word of their faith in the face of persecution and difficulty had gotten out. News of their acceptance of Christ and rejection of worthless idols had spread, influencing others to follow their example. Their commitment to Christ had not been without cost. But it had not been without real change either. These people had been radically transformed by the message of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.

Paul commended them. “So you received the message with joy from the Holy Spirit in spite of the severe suffering it brought you. In this way, you imitated both us and the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6 NLT).

Salvation had brought suffering. Faith had put them under fire. Accepting Christ had led to rejection and ridicule. But they had remained faithful. A year later, Paul had received news that they were still holding firm in their faith, and this letter was his attempt to encourage and exhort them to remain strong.

How easy it is for us to lose hope when our faith gets challenged or our walk with Christ becomes difficult. Accepting Christ requires nothing on our part, but walking with Him daily demands a determination to remain faithful, even in the face of difficulty. We have to trust Him when things don’t make sense. We have to believe in His love when the circumstances we find ourselves going through seem anything but loving. We have to rest in His promises, even when they seem unlikely or uncertain. The life of faith is anything but easy. But it is worth it.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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