Thessalonica was the largest city in Macedonia (the northern part of Greece). It was a seaport and a crossroads, with all the variety, conflict and challenges that such places bring. Life there wasn’t dull. In Acts 17, we learn that Paul and two companions, Silas and young Timothy, had all been there but had problems with local Jewish believers who rounded up some “bad characters” (Acts 17:5) and got them to say that the message of the Gospel is a crime against the government, since the Messiah would be a king.
Paul and his companions left Thessalonica and went to Berea, then Athens, and finally Corinth in about 50-51 AD. Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica while still in Athens, and when Timothy reported back to Paul, the apostle wrote this letter from Corinth, sometime in 51 AD.
There were three main issues Paul needed to address:
1. Paul’s integrity was being attacked.
2. There were lapses in the sanctified Christian living of the Thessalonians.
3. There was confusion regarding the final coming of Jesus Christ and the resurrection (every chapter of 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to Christ’s second coming).
A simple outline of this letter might be:
1:1-10 Thanking God for the faith, love and hope of the Thessalonians
2:1-20 Paul defends his ministry in their city
3:1-13 Timothy’s encouraging report
4:1-12 Instructions in sanctified Christian living
4:13—5:11 Problems with understanding Christ’s secondcoming
5:12-28 General exhortations
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
Paul hadn’t spent much time in Thessalonica, but while he was there he had come up against a lot of opposition and resistance to his message. Paul even says that although he and his companions wanted to visit again, “Satan stopped us” (2:18), probably by stirring things up where Paul was (in Corinth) so that he couldn’t go. But God out-did the devil. By permitting Paul to get bogged down in Corinth, he provided his church for all time with two letters, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, that give instruction about godly living, urge us not to neglect our daily work, encourage new converts to the faith, give assurance about the last days, remind us about what happens to believers who die before Jesus returns, and warn us about the Antichrist and his work.
Paul writes to “the church of the Thessalonians in God.” These words remind us that the true Church is in God. Without God, outside his word, the Church does not and cannot exist. The true God is the center of our worship, the object of our praise, the one we pray to, and the one who answers our prayers. He is at the center of everything we do, from bringing people to faith in him to faithfully managing the blessings he gives us. But God isn’t just the center, he is also the inside and the outside, the middle, and the perimeter. We are in him, and he is in us. That is not to say that we are God—God forbid! But his forgiveness through Jesus has brought us into his presence, and his Holy Spirit dwells in us and fills us and motivates us.
That’s what it means to be a believer. That’s what it means to be part of his Church. The letters to the Thessalonians are all about the basics, and the basics begin and end with Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians’ Faith
2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)
The difference between “work” (Greek ergon) and “labor” (Greek kopon) is that work is any activity or achievement we make in the service of God. It is what we do out of faith. Labor is something more difficult. It is something that causes exhaustion, and the emphasis of the word is on the weariness, the worn-out feeling, that follows the action. This kind of labor is something that requires a special love, a selfless love, that doesn’t look for gain or profit, but which comes from love itself, like the exhausting work of caring for an infant or an invalid. When our work drains us that much, we need to look for the “endurance” that comes from hope (NIV “inspired by hope”) in what Jesus has promised and accomplished. This kind of endurance bears hard and exhausting times because we know that something much better is coming. We know that our Lord Jesus Christ will come again on the Last Day to raise the dead, raise all of us into the perfection of sinlessness, and raise all of us who trust in him to eternal life forever in heaven.
Paul will come back again and again in this letter to the promise of the resurrection and eternal life—it was something that the Thessalonians needed to have explained, but it’s something we need to hear again and again, to inspire the endurance we need to get through every work and labor of love in our lives.
Pastor Timothy Smith