Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians — Introduction
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians
Returning from a holiday can mean many things – it has been nice to be away – but it is also good to be home!
But there are several tasks to be performed – unpacking the car, unpacking the cases, checking the phone messages and dealing with the post.
If you have seen the manse post ever with at least 6 items per day arriving you can imagine what size of a task falls to us when we first arrive home.
We try to guess the importance of the letters by looking at the outside – postmark – handwriting – return address etc. Some things can be left to another occasion – but some need to be opened immediately for their contents will probably be urgent.
This morning we come home to a letter from three men who have an important message. We wonder who these three men are and why they have written to us, the Church at Whiddon Valley.
The Letter is in the New Testament and is not only a letter for us, but for whoever reads the Bible.
But originally it was addressed to a particular group of people in a city in Greece, in a district called Macedonia.
The city was called THESSALONICA.
What do we know about THESSALONICA?
In AD 50, the date of the letter, Thessalonica was a well-established city with a long history. Cassander had founded it in the 4th Century BC. Cassander was one of Alexander the Great’s army officers who named the city after his wife – whose name was THESSALONICA. Why was Alexander so keen to give permission to this officer to do this? It was because THESSALONICA was also his half sister. Cassander took the inhabitants of a village famous for its hot springs, called THERMES, and brought them together with the people belonging to 25 other nearby villages and enlisted them to be the founding population of this new city - THESSALONICA. The city quickly gained prominence in the region of Macedonia for several reasons.
1. The city occupied an excellent position being at the head of the Thermaic Gulf, an inlet of the Aegean Sea, almost at that strip of water’s most northerly point. It boasted a good natural harbour and therefore became a busy port; and inland there was a rich well-watered plain.
2. It was situated on the main East West highway leading from Rome to the East. If you look at a Bible Map of the area the significance will be plain. The road was a Roman Military Highway called the Via Egnatia. It was also a major trade route.
3. Thessalonica was a Free City. That is, it was administered and ruled by its own citizens, rather than being ruled by an appointed Roman Governor.
Acts 17 v 6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;
It is no wonder then that Thessalonica became the capital of the Province of Macedonia. Jewish people were attracted to the city, as they were to commercial centres throughout the Roman world of that time. Their Judaism added to the religious dimension of the city – which was generally known for its adherence to the Roman pantheon of gods (including the Emperor himself) and a host of oriental deities. Indeed it must have been similar to our own day with the variety of religious beliefs held by many people.
What is not similar to today is the influence that the Jews had on the city. With their strict belief in the one true God, Monotheism, and their high ethical standards they formed a class apart from the rest of the population. It appears that many Gentiles found Judaism very attractive – an alternative to their own idolatrous views, and they joined themselves loosely, as interested followers, to the synagogues. Such people became known as “God-fearers” but they never were allowed to become full proselytes, owing to the strict ritual requirements of Judaism, and the Jews own intense nationalism. This fact is significant when we consider soon the circumstances of the 3 men who came in AD 51 to the city.
What do we know about these 3 Men?
1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul was the Greek name of a man known also as Saul of Tarsus. Like his namesake, the first King of Israel, Saul was from the Israelite tribe of Benjamin. He was a Roman citizen and according to Acts 9 he was born around about the same time as the Lord Jesus.
The Hebrew name Saul means ASKED FOR. The Greek name Paul means LITTLE. There is only one verse in the NT where the two names appear together –
Acts 13 v 9 Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him,
Luke is careful to only refer to him by his Jewish name when he is working amongst Jews – but as soon as the Apostle began his work amongst the Gentiles he drops his Jewish name and speaks thereafter exclusively of him by the name Paul. Some think that Paul had both names from birth – which is plausible seeing he was a Jew with Roman citizenship.
Most commentators fix the date of Paul’s birth as 2 or 3 years after that of the Lord Jesus making him slightly younger than the Lord. We have no certainty about this but he well may have seen the Lord in the flesh. We certainly know that he saw the Lord in a vision on the Damascus road.
This man is the same as the one called SILAS. He is called Silas 13 times and he is the companion taken with Paul on the second missionary journey. Silas was a Jew, a fact gleaned from Acts 15 v 22
Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:
He was called a Prophet in Acts 15 v 32
And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.
And he accompanied Paul on this first Missionary expedition into Europe.
40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.
Timothy was a much younger man who was the son of a Jewish mother and Gentile father. We come across him in Acts 16 v 1
Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek: 2 Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.
His name means “Honouring God”. After his conversion and initial growth in the church in Lystra Timothy quickly showed pastoral and evangelistic gifts. Paul recognised these and took him along in this second missionary journey. Timothy was part of the fruit of Paul’s first Journey with Barnabas. He calls him
his own son in the faith in 1 Timothy 1 v 2.
So the letter is from these three men. A joint letter from these evangelists who had preached the Gospel together at the city of Thessalonica under the leadership of Paul. What a team it was – maturity and youth, and godliness evident throughout. The older Paul did not fear to acknowledge the younger men and to associate them with himself. And the junior members did not try to assert their independence from him.
How good it is for brethren to work together in unity! How necessary it is in any Gospel work in any setting. How needful for us here as we seek to reach out to our neighbours and others in this area that we are joined in unity and agreement in Gospel matters, in belief in God’s word and in a desire to bring glory to the God who made us and who sustains and who has saved us through His dear Son the Lord Jesus Christ.
How did Paul, Silas and Timothy come to Thessalonica?
Let us now visit this Gospel initiative to Thessalonica that occurred in about AD 51. Acts 17 v 1 – 15
1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: 2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, 3 Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. 4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. 5 But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. 6 And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; 7 Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. 8 And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. 9 And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go. 10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few. 13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people. 14 And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still. 15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.
Thessalonica was nicknamed “the mother of all Macedonia.” 200,000 people lived there in AD 51 – a city the size of Aberdeen.
It would appear from v 2 that Paul and the others were only in Thessalonica for 3 weeks. But if we look carefully at three other texts we can safely assume that he was there longer than this –
Philippians 4 v 16 For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity.
The church at Philippi had time to know that Paul was in Thessalonica and then to send a gift to him having first made a collection amongst the Christians. In those days that would have taken more than 3 weeks!
Then 2 texts in the Thessalonian letters -
1 Thessalonians 2 v 9 For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God.
2 Thessalonians 3 v 8 Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you:
These three men obtained work in the city and paid their own way to enable them to live – and to preach the Gospel to the people of Thessalonica. Sometimes we read these texts and think that the labouring night and day refers to their Evangelism – it clearly does not – but to their manual labour. The pay was not very good for these men who were willing to do manual work. This is indicated by the generosity of the Christians at Philippi who had realised the need, and sent support. All this takes time – and must have been several months rather than three weeks.
But let us back up a little and notice the events recorded in Acts even before their arrival in Thessalonica. Acts 16 tells us of the incident in Philippi when Paul and Silas were thrown into the middle jail with their feet fast in stocks.
Lydia had been saved – perhaps the girl possessed with the spirit of divination had been converted – and others even before the earthquake. Then the jailer and his family were blessed with saving grace. How long the three men stayed in Philippi is not completely clear – but the text of the last verse of Acts 16 does not insist that they left immediately that they had been released from prison. They went to Lydia’s house to encourage the new believers and to teach them what they could of how to proceed as a new church.
From Philippi they went, staying one night in each of the places en route – to Amphipolis and Apollonia. Then they arrived in Thessalonica.
As was his usual practice Paul began his work of preaching Christ in the synagogue. For three Sabbaths he proclaimed a message with 2 main points.
1. That God’s anointed Messiah must come to earth, suffer at the hands of men and then die, but rise again from the dead.
Paul would have preached this from the Torah using all of the Messianic predictions from the prophets and establish beyond doubt that this was how the sovereign Lord God had planned the salvation of His people.
2. Once Paul had established these truths from their own scriptures, he alleged that Jesus of Nazareth, of the family of David, was the Messiah. In other words that the Messiah had come! That He had appeared as a man in Palestine just 50 years earlier; that He had lived for 30 years and then preached the good news of the Kingdom; that this Jesus was the Saviour of sinners because He had died as the lamb of God, a substitute for sinners. What a message this was! Paul was excited about it. He could not stop openly proclaiming the marvellous truth of it all. He may well have given his own personal testimony about how the Lord himself had met him and transformed him from the murderous Christian hater that he had been, to a follower and contender for the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
But the springboard was the Torah itself.
This ministry in the Synagogue appears to have only lasted for 3 weeks (Acts 17 v 2). But are we to think that these three Sabbath days were consecutive? Could there not have been a gap of a few weeks between the three Sabbath days? In a few weeks time the Church at Exeter are expecting me to take three weeknight Bible Studies. But they will not be one after the other – they are one a month for three months. It is all a matter of how we interpret the text. Now the encouraging thing is that during this time, however long it was, some Jewish people in Thessalonica believed and cast their lot in with the preachers. And more believed from amongst the devout Greek “God fearers” that we mentioned earlier. See how Luke puts it in
Acts 17 v 4 And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.
It appears then that the new Thessalonian church consisted of mainly Gentile believers who were converted over a period of several months. Therefore it would appear that the initial work of the Gospel in Thessalonica was much longer than three weeks.
Inevitably the conversions of many led to jealousy amongst the Jews in the Synagogue. It was thought that Paul, Silas and Timothy were staying at Jason’s house. A mob assembled and attacked seeking to bring the three missionaries out to assault them – but they were not there. Instead Jason himself was dragged out and brought before the city rulers with accusations that Paul, Silas and other Christians had “turned the world upside down”. They alleged that the missionaries were making seditious claims that this Jesus was an alternative Emperor. Lack of evidence meant that the civic authorities could do nothing, so they bound the believers over to keep the peace (even though they had not disturbed the peace!)
There was no alternative but for Paul and Silas to leave Thessalonica by night and go southwest to Berea. After a short time in Berea, once more cut short by Jews who followed him, Paul continued on Southwards and came to Athens on his own. Eventually Timothy joined him there. Timothy was immediately sent back to Thessalonica to see how the church was getting on.
Paul had been distressed to have to leave the infant church in the face of such opposition and persecution. He was not confident that the church members were thoroughly established in their new faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. How hard it must have been for him.
However when Timothy eventually rejoined Paul in Corinth he brought encouraging news. The Christians in Thessalonica had a firm faith and an influential witness.
We can see this in his words to them in this letter in 1 Thessalonians 3 v 6
But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you: 7 Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith:
Faith and love, and loyalty and steadfastness under persecution. What a commendation for these new believers. Would we be able to live up to the same testimony and commendation? That we stood up to the pressures of persecution? Some from Thessalonica had died during this persecution – it was a very tough time for those who nailed their colours to Jesus’ mast. In chapter 2 we shall see how Paul was going to commend these believers – as those who had received the Gospel genuinely and become followers of the Churches in Judea which are in Christ – verse 14. They were followers in the sense that they too had been persecuted and opposed by those around them, in particular, the Jews – even to death! My dear brothers and sisters – what have we known of this in any way? What persecution has been our lot in life? We pray for dear believers in North Korea and in other countries where Christians today in 2003 are being killed simply because they are Christians. This was reality in AD 50 in the Roman Empire – is there anything to prevent the same in our time? And if so are we ready to suffer for Christ? Or will we find it too much to follow Jesus Christ if someone holds a gun to our heads, or tortures our families in front of our eyes? Or removes our privileges as citizens and treat us as outcasts? It could happen – how would we react? If this fills you with fear and apprehension then at the same time ask yourself 2 questions.
1. Is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ WORTH such suffering for His sake, seeing He suffered so much for us?
2. Can you believe that when such trials come to us that the Grace of the same Lord Jesus Christ will be SUFFICIENT for us in order to endure?
Such questions as these will bring us up sharply to challenge the mediocrity of our safe Christian lives in a Western culture that lets anyone believe what they want. We pray for revival – but who knows whether persecution of the church will precede any such revival – will we still pray for revival? May the Lord Jesus give us COURAGE and His grace to be utterly serious about our Christianity so that our Saviour’s glory may be plainly seen in our community as we live for Him.
Now the Apostle, with His pastor’s heart, wanted to reassure the Christians at Thessalonica about those of their number who had died for Jesus Christ. These two letters to the Thessalonians were written to encourage the believers there. He realised that there was a gap in their understanding of the future for the Christian who had died – some were discouraged, thinking that the loved ones who had died would be at a disadvantage, as compared with those who were still alive when the Lord returned. Also some others had become idle – they expected the Lord to come again very soon and therefore there was no point in working or doing anything else but look up to the sky – watching! This had to be corrected – this correction will come later in the letter.
As we come to a conclusion let us notice the way that
Paul addresses the Christians at Thessalonica.
What did the Apostle call them?
The church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ:
The word for church here is ecclesia and whenever we find this word in the New Testament it refers to “the company of those whom God has called out of spiritual darkness into His marvellous light.”
Ecclesia can be thought of in three ways.
1. (As here) the constitution of a LOCAL congregation of Christian believers – that is those in Thessalonica;
2. The whole body of believers as we find in Ephesians 1 v 22
(God) hath put all things under his (Christ’s) feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, 23 Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
3. A gathering of people for worship – as is found in 1 Corinthians 11 v 18
For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.
The letter writers are clearly addressing all the members of the Church that had been established at Thessalonica and was still in existence by virtue of the fact that they were in vital union with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is what it means to be a Christian and a Church Member – a person who is savingly joined in spiritual Union with the living God. This was the message that Paul, Silas and Timothy had brought to the pagan and Jewish society at Thessalonica – that God has opened the way that people may have a personal relationship with God through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. This was the Gospel, the good news that they had brought. It was a glorious and wonderful message – and it is a message that is just as much for today as it was in those pioneering missionary days of the 1st Century. The question this morning is this – has this message reached you yet? Are you aware that Jesus Christ came into the world, not to lead an uprising against the Jewish authorities; nor to found a new religion? Jesus Christ came into the world to SAVE SINNERS. And that while we were yet sinners, in rebellion and doing our own thing – revelling in selfishness and self centredness, He died that we may be forgiven and be turned from the darkness of a godless life and an eternity of punishment in hell – to a wonderful and glorious life of freedom to worship God because we want to – because a desire is placed in our hearts to do so!
Is this your experience today my friend? Has the Lord God forgiven you through faith in His Son the Lord Jesus Christ yet? Paul preached repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone to these people in Thessalonica – and many believed the great message. How good it would be if you too would join that great company of believing and forgiven people today.
Trust Jesus Christ and His word – he has promised to save all who come to Him, accepting that they are sinners and realising that only He can save them from a terrible future. May God reveal Himself to you this morning and the same salvation that Paul Silas and Timothy brought to Macedonia and the city of Thessalonica, will change your life too.