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 1:8-10 ESV
The church at Thessalonica may have been small, but it had been effective. They were suffering persecution for their faith, but they were not allowing it to diminish their joy in the Lord. Paul compares their lives to an instrument “sounded forth…everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 8 ESV). The Greek word he used is exēcheō, and it means “to sound forth, to echo forth.” Their actions and attitudes, outward expressions of their faith in Christ, had traveled well beyond the borders of their city and into the surrounding regions.
There is no indication that the Thessalonian church had sent out actual missionaries to carry “the word of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV), but their lives were witness to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In spite of their less-than-satisfactory circumstances, they were exhibiting the sanctifying power of the Spirit in their daily lives. And because it was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and it stood on the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway to the East, it hosted countless travelers who would have heard the news of this fledgling religious community and their faith in God.
Paul makes a somewhat hyperbolic statement in order to indicate the powerful nature of their witness.
…your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything… – 1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV
Obviously, Paul and his traveling companions were still having to share the Gospel wherever they went, but they were hearing more and more stories of those who had come to faith because of the witness of the Thessalonians believers. And Paul provides details regarding the exact nature of their testimony.
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… – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV
The Thessalonian believers were living proof of the power of the Gospel, providing irrefutable evidence that God could transform idol-worshiping, sin-enslaved people into Spirit-filled, faith-empowered disciples of Jesus Christ. And their lives were in direct keeping with the transformative power of the Gospel as Paul described it to Titus.
For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God… – Titus 2:11-12 NLT
In the first part of verse 9 Paul mentions “the kind of reception” he and Silas had experienced when they arrived in Thessalonica on their second missionary journey. It’s interesting to note that the New Living Translation renders Paul’s words as “the wonderful welcome.” But that seems a bit of a reach when you consider the actual facts surrounding those fateful days nearly a year earlier. As Luke records in Acts 17, Paul and Silas had initially found a somewhat receptive audience to their message.
…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
But this handful of eager converts were not the only ones to “welcome” Paul and Silas to Thessalonica.
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 ESV
When Paul describes those events, he uses the Greek phrase, hopoios veisodos, which can be translated “what manner of entering in.” He seems to be emphasizing the harsh nature of their “welcome.” They were met with strong resistance from a group of Jews whom Luke describes as “wicked men.” And yet, a great many devout Greeks and not a few leading women in the city had chosen to hear and receive Paul’s message regarding salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.
And it was this unwelcoming welcome coupled with the decision of the Thessalonian believers to accept Christ that gave their witness its power. They had come to faith under extremely difficult circumstances. And they had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV). Their decision to follow Christ had not been made in a stress-free environment full of encouraging friends and family members. Each of the individuals who placed their faith in Christ had done so at great risk to their lives and livelihoods. When they had chosen “to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures” (Titus 2:12 NLT) and accept Paul’s message concerning the Messiah, they had placed themselves in direct opposition to the Jews and Gentiles in their community. They had become outcasts and targets for persecution.
Paul reminds them of the decisive nature of their decision:
…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV)
They had chosen to leave behind a lifestyle of idolatry. They had turned their backs on the pagan practices of their past and had “turned to” God. The Greek word Paul uses is epistrephō, and it conveys the idea of returning or reverting. It can be translated “to come again.” These people were experiencing the joy of coming back to God, having been cleansed from their sins and made righteous in His eyes because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. They had been reconciled to God, a powerful reality that Paul described to the believers in Colossae.
You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. – Colossians 1:21-22 NLT
This image of lost, sin-enslaved people returning to God with full access into His presence and their sins fully forgiven is what the Gospel is all about. Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of the reconciling nature of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in his second letter to the church at Corinth.
“…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 NLT
The Thessalonian believers had come back to God. And now they were serving the living God, not a man-made, lifeless idol with no capacity to provide help or hope. And they were serving the one true God, not one of many false gods whose statues could be found all over the city of Thessalonica.
And as part of their reconciliation to God, they had confidence that He would one day send His Son back to earth to redeem and rescue them from this sin-marred world. God had not only transformed their lives in the here-and-now, He had promised them eternal life in the hereafter. And they were willing to suffer now in order to gain what God had in store for them in the future.
And their belief in the one true God came with a guarantee of His Son’s ultimate return, which is why Paul encouraged them “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV). They might suffer for their faith in this life, but they would be delivered from the wrath of God to come. All because they had placed their hope in the gracious gift of God made possible by the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God.
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.