1 Thessalonians chapter 1
Read or listen the First Epistle to the Thessalonians online (ESV, Bible Gateway)
All of Paul’s letters begin with a greeting that, as was customary at the time, has three parts. First, we learn who the author of the letter is, then who the recipient is, and lastly, there is a brief final greeting. We learn that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy are the senders of the first letter to the Thessalonians. This does not mean that the letter has three authors. Paul is its actual author. This becomes clear as we continue reading the letter. There may be several reasons for mentioning Silvanus and Timothy alongside Paul. Silvanus and Timothy were with Paul when the letter was written. The fact that also their names are given shows that they have seen the letter and confirm its content. Silvanus and Timothy are also mentioned because they were known to the church at Thessalonica. Their names alongside apostle Paul show that they are his dear and esteemed co-workers, whose names deserve a place of honour.
Silvanus and Timothy are also spoken of elsewhere in the New Testament. Silvanus is probably the same man as Silas, who appears many times in the New Testament. Originally, he was a respected member of the Jerusalem church. From Jerusalem he was sent to Antioch to explain to the local church what the apostles decided at their meeting (Acts 15). Apparently, it was in Antioch that Silas became more acquainted with Paul. Paul later chose Silas as his co-worker for his second missionary journey. He became Paul's close brother-in-arms.
Timothy was from the city of Lystra. He was the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother who had become a Christian. As Paul continued on his second missionary journey from Lystra, he took Timothy with him. Timothy travelled with Paul from city to city, sometimes serving as the apostle’s messenger (Phil. 2:19-23 and 1 Thess. 3:1-5). Paul greatly appreciated Timothy; the old apostle gave a good testimony about his young co-worker (Phil. 2:19-23). Later, Timothy became a very important figure in the early church. This is demonstrated by the two letters sent to Timothy that are included in the New Testament. Both Silvanus and Timothy were with Paul when he first came to Thessalonica. So, the congregation was familiar with them.
We learn that the recipient of the letter is the Thessalonian congregation. Paul says of the members of the church that they are in God the Father and in Jesus Christ. By this, the apostle means that the recipients of the letter belong to Father God and Jesus; that they are true children of God. In saying this, Paul wants to make a clear distinction between Christians and Jews. Christians are now God's people. Faith in Jesus Christ separates the Christian church from the synagogue of Jews who disregard Christ. In the salutation, Paul wishes grace and peace to the Thessalonians. The salutation is shorter than in his other letters, but the content is the same. Paul wishes to the church all the good that God’s forgiveness, presence, and blessing bring.
Thanks be to God 1:2-10
Paul talks about prayer meetings he has with his fellow workers. In them they also pray regularly for the church of the Thessalonians. The apostle's intercession is above all thanksgiving. He gives thanks to God for all the good things the Lord has done in the church. In particular, the apostle has three things in mind to give thanks for: the faith, love, and steadfastness of hope. The faith has brought about godly life in the congregation. Christian love is manifest in the church of the Thessalonians as efforts for the good of others. The Christians in Thessalonica are patiently waiting for the return of Jesus. It is important to note that Paul is not praising first and foremost the church for its good state. Praise belongs to God who has taken good care of the church, and it is for this reason that the church is alive and well even amid adversity.
In verses 4-10, Paul describes the birth of the Thessalonian church. He addresses his words to the "brothers." This is not to say that Paul is only speaking to the men of the church. The term "brothers" also includes the female members of the church.
Together with his fellow workers, Paul preached the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus in Thessalonica. God worked through the proclaimed word, assuring many of the inhabitants of Thessalonica that Paul was declaring the truth to them. The Holy Spirit gave rise to faith in Jesus, many listeners were baptized, and a Christian church was born in Thessalonica. Paul says that the new believers became followers of him and of his fellow workers. By this the apostle simply means that those who received faith set out on the same path as he.
Paul’s description of the birth of the church is instructive in many ways. It is especially important to note that the apostle speaks of God's choice. The church was not born in such a way that a few Thessalonians just decided to come to faith and establish a church. The church was founded by God. He saw fit to give faith and birth a Christian church in Thessalonica. As the birth of the church was not the work of men but of God, it stands now on a solid foundation – not on the decision of men but on the determination of Almighty God.
The church in Thessalonica was born amidst tribulation. In the Book of Acts (Acts 17) we are told how Paul and Silas were persecuted in Thessalonica. They were accused of stirring up rebellion, and they were forced to leave the city. It is obvious that also those who had just converted to Christianity were persecuted. However, despite the ridicule, they kept their faith in Jesus, even rejoicing amid tribulation.
The books of the New Testament talk a lot about joy. Joy is often mentioned in tribulations, just when there would not seem to be any cause for it (e.g., Phil. 4:4 and 1 Peter 4:13). Why to rejoice during difficulties? Joy in the Bible does not mean just any kind of merrymaking. It is about a deeper joy; we rejoice that our sins are forgiven and that by grace we can live as children of God. Maybe part of the joy in the Thessalonian church was brought by Jesus’s word that suffering for the sake of his name goes with a disciple’s life (see Matthew 10:22-25). The fact that the church was facing persecution for Jesus’ sake goes to show that the Thessalonian Christians are his disciples. For this, there is a reason to truly rejoice.
The church in Thessalonica had become a model for many churches. The news of its birth had spread to various parts of what is now present-day Greece. In addition to mainland Greece, the birth and life of this church were talked about elsewhere too. As Paul travelled from city to city and met new people, there was no need for him to tell them how God had moved in Thessalonica. He himself heard from those people what had happened in the city. How did news of the events in Thessalonica spread to other towns and villages? Traffic between Greek cities was rather busy. Knowledge about the church may have spread to new regions through merchants and other travellers. It is also possible that the Thessalonian Christians themselves travelled through various places and told of what had happened in the city. If the latter option holds true, the church of Thessalonica represents a very exemplary church. It not only received the gospel but also wanted to convey the message of salvation to other people.
In verses 9-10, Paul briefly recounts the message he proclaimed in Thessalonica and everywhere among the Gentiles. First, Paul speaks of how the Gentiles turned from idolatry. Idols are not real gods and to worship them is in fact demon worship (1 Cor. 10:20). It is therefore a gross violation of the First Commandment. There is only one living God whom every human being is to serve and worship. Paul’s talk about idols tells an important fact about the background of the Thessalonian congregants: they are Gentile Christians. There are no Jews in the congregation, or at least very few. If Paul were writing to the Jews, he would not be talking about idolatry. The God of the Old Testament, whom the Jews worship, is not an idol.
Second, Paul proclaims the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus did not remain in the tomb, but God raised him from the dead. He is the Son of God who on the cross atoned for the sin of the whole world. His resurrection proved this to be true.
Third, Paul speaks of the wrath to come. Jesus will soon return to Earth and then the world will face judgment. Every person must stand before the judgment seat of God and give account of their lives. Then everyone will receive a reward for what they did and did not do. The Judgment Day is a day of wrath. We all fall short of God’s standards. That is why we all deserve a terrible punishment. In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of what will happen on the last day. On the day of wrath, there is only one Saviour: Jesus Christ. He saves his own from the coming punishment and bestows heaven instead of hell on his disciples. The Judgment Day is a day of salvation for believers in Jesus. Therefore, we may wait for the last day, not with fear, but with joy and hope that it will come soon.