We are just beginning a study of the book of 1 Thessalonians. We looked last week at Acts 17 and the birth of this church. Today we begin a study of the actual book.
G.K. Beale in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians wrote the following:
"In order to understand any biblical book or ancient writing, one must discover as much as possible about the situation addressed and the historical context. Who wrote the work? To whom was it written? Where and when was it written? Why was it written, and for what occasion was it written? Answers to these questions are difficult to discover for some biblical books, but when they are available they generally provide crucial clues to solving interpretive problems."
I agree. Let's see if we can answer some of these questions. I will begin with some history. On their second missionary journey, Paul, Silas, and Timothy traveled through Phrygian and Galatian territories, but the Holy Spirit prevented them from continuing into the Province of Asia. During the night at Troas, Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man imploring him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Paul sought passage to Macedonia at once. It would be the first missionary effort into Europe.
Paul and his missionary team founded a Christian community in Philippi. After being beaten and imprisoned, they fled the city and made their way to Thessalonica, an important seaport and the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. Located on the Egnatian Way, the main road from Rome to the Eastern Empire, the city was within viewing distance of Mt. Olympus, the home of the Greek gods, and therefore home to many pagan temples.
Preaching in the Jewish Synagogue for three successive Sabbaths, Paul founded a church in Thessalonica made up of Jews and Gentiles before he again experienced opposition. Acts 17:2 says, "On three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures." This does not mean that Paul stayed at Thessalonica only three weeks and then had to leave suddenly. It simply means that Paul's ministry at the synagogue was three weeks in length. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul repeatedly refers to things which the Thessalonians already knew. More than ten times, we find some reference to their recalling what they already knew. Paul must have taught them a good deal of doctrine. This would have required more than just three weeks.
The leaders of the local Synagogue became jealous of Paul's success among the Jews and organized a riot, forcing Paul and his team to leave the city much sooner than they would have liked (Acts 17:1-9).
Paul continued his missionary journey through Greece, first going to Berea, about 50 miles to the west. But he was soon driven from Berea, leaving Silas and Timothy there to work with the new Christian community. He then traveled to Athens about 200 miles to the south and sent word back to Berea for Silas and Timothy to meet him there (Acts 17:14-15). When Silas and Timothy joined him in Athens, he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to continue teaching the new believers because he was concerned about the new church. Paul and Silas continued to Corinth where Timothy rejoined them, bringing word that the Thessalonian Christians were bravely enduring persecution. It was Timothy's message from Thessalonica that would lead Paul to write to them from Corinth.
Paul most likely wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians from Corinth in A.D. 50/51. After hearing Timothy's report of their suffering, Paul became even more concerned about the community. He wrote a letter to commend and encourage them. Paul sent Timothy back with his first letter to them (1 Thessalonians), written six months to a year after Paul had left there. Second Thessalonians was written a few months later.
The city of Thessalonica was a cosmopolitan metropolis similar to Corinth, inhabited by peoples from all over the known world. There were Barbaric Germanic peoples from the north who brought with them their pagan religion and culture. There were Greeks from Achaia to the south and from the islands of the Aegean Sea. All brought their own refinement and philosophy. There were Romans from the west who were mostly retired soldiers, and they brought their wealth and political power. And there were Jews who came in large numbers from the east so that eventually one-third of the population was Jewish. These Jews brought with them their ethical monotheistic faith and their national prejudices.
The church seems to have been comprised of mostly Gentiles, evidenced by the absence of allusions to the Tanakh in either of the two epistles. In founding the church, Paul used the Tanakh in the synagogue but in writing to them he did not.
The town was filled with businessmen, travelers, and traders. The town was filled with sailors. It was a booming place. A recently-excavated Roman forum unearthed a 400-seat indoor theater, a coin mint, a bath complex, about twenty shops, and storage rooms likely used for commerce. The pagan cults of Dionysius (god of wine) and the emperors (e.g. Augustus and Julius Caesar) were popular in the city. https://drivethruhistoryadventures.com/thessalonica-thessalonike/
Date—The dates for Paul's writing of the Thessalonian letters are some of the most certain dates we have involving his letters. It is recorded that while Paul was in Corinth, he was arrested and brought before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. Most commentators date 1 and 2 Thessalonians in A.D. 50-51.
Author—Scholars agree that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians. Only modern form critics have seriously doubted Paul's authorship and the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians, but their conclusions have not convinced many scholars.
Much debate revolves around why Paul wrote this epistle. No one seriously disputes that Paul was worried about the welfare of his readers' faith and wrote to encourage his new converts (3:1-5). It is a letter of exhortation to a people already living holy lives to excel even more. It is a letter that commends them.
In my opinion the largest theological contribution of 1 and 2 Thessalonians is in what they say about eschatology. Over a quarter of 1 Thessalonians and nearly half of 2 Thessalonians deal with problems and issues regarding the Parousia of Christ. It is obvious that the Lord's return was prominent in Paul's mind, from the beginning to the end of 1 Thessalonians. This is a subject found at the close of every chapter.
The key to Paul's strategy and the ability of this church to endure the pressures they faced from the religious persecution of the Jews and the paganism of that day was their knowledge of the Word. In the short time he was with them, he taught this congregation a great deal of Bible doctrine.
The Thessalonian church wasn't perfect, no church is, but it is the only church in the New Testament that Paul presents as an example to other churches.
so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 1 Thessalonians 1:7 ESV
This is a very young church, but its members are already an example to all believers.
First Thessalonians 1:1 is a standard letter form of the first century. Paul made it uniquely Christian by substituting "grace" for the similar sounding Greek word "greetings." Then verses 2-10 form one long thanksgiving prayer to God for the believers at Thessalonica. Let's look at the text.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Yeshua the Christ: Grace to you and peace. 1 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV
The letter begins with the naming of the missionary team that is writing it. Whenever the team is mentioned, Paul is the first one named.
"Paul"—He was formally known as Saul of Tarsus. He was first called Paul in Acts 13:9. It is probable that most Jews of the "diaspora" had a Hebrew name and a Greek name. I think we are all familiar with Paul and that he wrote 13 of the New Testament letters.
"Silvanus"—This is the Roman equivalent of Silas, his Jewish name. He was a Jewish Christian and a leading member of the church in Jerusalem. Paul sent him with Barsabbas to the church at Antioch with their letter welcoming all Gentile converts after the Council of Jerusalem. He was, like Paul, a Roman citizen. He is the co-sender in both of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians. He served as Peter's secretary, writing down Peter's words in 1 Peter to the universal Church.
"Timothy"—He was a trusted companion of Paul. He was born in Lystra in Asia Minor and was the son of a Jewish woman and Greek father. He was a member of Paul's second missionary journey who helped found Christian communities in Macedonia and Greece. Timothy was also a companion on Paul's third missionary team and was the co-sender for six of Paul's letters. Paul sent him as his representative to deliver letters to communities and to help settle disputes. Paul wrote two pastoral letters to Timothy when he was serving as the pastor at Ephesus. I think that the greatest thing that Paul says about Timothy is found in 1 Corinthians 4.
I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 1 Corinthians 4:16-17 ESV
Paul says, "I want you to imitate me, now here's Timothy." Timothy was a reproduction of Paul. Paul couldn't be there, so he sent Timothy who was just like him. Timothy is a model of what we all should be. We are all called to pattern our lives after Paul, who patterned his life after Yeshua.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Yeshua the Christ: Grace to you and peace. 1 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV
Do you notice anything that is missing from Paul's greeting to the church at Thessalonica that is present in the greeting of his letters to the Christian churches at Rome, Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, and Colossae?
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Yeshua, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth1 Corinthians 1:1-2 ESV
Paul does not announce his apostolic authority in his greeting. In the greeting of his letter to the Galatians, Paul announced that he wrote as an "apostle" of Christ and vigorously defended his claim to apostolic authority. He also announced his apostolic role in the greetings of most of his other letters. Apparently in Macedonia his apostleship was never in question. He wrote two letters to the Thessalonian church and one letter to the Philippian church, both in Macedonia. In none of those three letters did he identify himself as an apostle.
"To the church"—The etymology of the Greek word for church ekklēsia literally means "called-out ones," but it was widely used to refer to various assemblies of people, both religious and secular. The word ekklēsia must be understood against the background of the Greek Septuagint, where the word repeatedly refers to the gathered congregation of Israel. In this light, the Thessalonian church was part of the true Israelite congregation of God's people who had been established by Messiah Yeshua's latter-day redemptive work.
In the New Testament, it has special reference to the one body of Christ that began on the Day of Pentecost, consisting of born-again Jews and Gentiles. In the New Testament, "church" can be used to describe all Christians everywhere (the universal church) or a local congregation that is usually designated by the city in which the believers live.
A couple of weeks ago someone wrote me and asked this question: "What promises of God are for us now?" That's a great question, one that we all should want to know the answer to. Most believers today would respond, "All of them." Have you ever heard the mantra that declares that every promise in the book is mine? People think this because they don't understand hermeneutics and audience relevance. Lets consider Jeremiah 29:11 for example.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 ESV
How many times have you heard believers claiming this promise? This is a very comforting verse, don't you think? Maybe, if it were in a fortune cookie. But it's not! It is a verse in the book of Jeremiah that must be understood in its context. If you just read the previous verse, you see the context and audience.
"For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. Jeremiah 29:10 ESV
This was written around the 6th century B.C. when Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people were taken captive in Babylon. Yahweh is assuring the exiles of Judah that His long-term plan is good and that He has not abandoned them. Yahweh has plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you [the exiles of Judah] a future and a hope. These promises were to take place when the seventy years were complete. This verse is really easy to understand if you just keep it in context.
Paul is writing this letter to the church, particularly to the church located in Thessalonica. He is not writing it to us; we are reading someone else's mail. So, how do we know what applies to us and what does not? I said earlier that in the New Testament, "church" can be used to describe all Christians everywhere (the universal church) or a local congregation that is usually designated by the city in which the believers live. Every believer is part of the church universal. Therefore, when reading a letter to a local church, we need to seek to understand what part of it is specifically to the local assembly and what is applicable to the church universal. For example, look with me at Philippians 2.
I hope in the Lord Yeshua to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. Philippians 2:19 ESV
Is this specific to the local assemble or is it applicable to the universal church? Timothy is not coming to us shortly because he is dead. It has been two thousand years since Paul wrote this. The time indicator "soon" tells us that it doesn't apply to us.
Consider also these words of Paul to the Philippians.
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. Philippians 4:2-3 ESV
Is this to us? No, Euodia and Syntyche are dead—as is Clement. This was very specific to the local situation. What we might apply from this text is the principle that Yahweh wants unity in the church. We see that throughout the New Testament. But what about Philippians 4:13?
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13 ESV
Does this apply to us? While Paul is clearly talking about himself, the principle also applies to us if we are abiding in Christ. Most of the teaching that we find in the New Testament is directed to the Church and applies to all Christians in all times. This verse is usually removed from it context. Can we really do ALL things through Christ? Leap tall buildings at a single bound? Run faster that a bullet? Notice the context.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Philippians 4:11-12 ESV
Does this apply to us? Can we also deal with any circumstance if we are living in dependence on Christ? Yes, we can. This is a spiritual truth that applies to all believers who live in dependence upon Christ. But believers, although we can apply the spiritual truths that are given to the church to ourselves, the time and audience specific events are not for us.
Let me just add here that there are some full preterists who push the "audience relevance" principle (it was "written to them and not to us") to a hyper-application. In other words, they present the Bible as being merely history so that it lacks any present-day application to the believer.
Let me be clear that this full Preterist does not believe that the Bible is just history and lacks present day application. I surely would not be constantly encouraging you to read it if it was not relevant to us. But I do believe the Bible was written to a certain audience. We are not that audience. We must first seek to understand what it meant to them so that we can then see if what is being taught also applies to us.
From my perspective, unless I have strong reasons not to, I apply the principles of the New Testament to believers today. For example, I think that we twenty-first century American Christians are to walk worthy. I think that we are to be humble, that we are to love one another, and that we are to put others before ourselves. To me these things apply to the Church universal and are therefore timeless. But there is much in the New Testament that does not apply to us because we do not live in the Transition Period.
When we understand the transition period, we will understand that we live in "the age to come" and that many of the transition period problems do not apply to us. It is only when we know "what time it is" that we can know how the Bible is relevant to us. We are not looking for things we already have or trying to hold onto things that are past. Back to our text.
"To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Yeshua the Christ"—Referring to the church as "in God" rather than "of God" is unusual in Paul's writings. We should probably understand it in the same way as our being "in Christ," a favorite designation of Paul. It means that we are identified completely with Him.
Usually, Paul will address the saints and churches in terms of where they live.
To the church of God that is in Corinth… 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV
But in the letters to the Thessalonians he says, "To the church of the Thessalonians in God." Why the difference? Paul is emphasizing the fact that this church (which happens to be in Thessalonica) is in union with God. The church at Thessalonica was undergoing persecution and they needed to be reminded of their sphere of protection and provision which was in God. They are in union with the Creator of the universe.
"To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Yeshua the Christ"—God the Father and Yeshua are combined in a syntactical way by using one preposition to identify them both. This is one technique used by the New Testament authors to theologically assert the Deity of Christ. Another was to attribute titles in the Tanakh and functions of YHWH to Yeshua of Nazareth.
To call Yeshua "Lord" focuses attention on who and what the Savior is to all who believe in Him. As Lord (kurios) Yeshua is Yahweh and the supreme Creator and Sustainer of the universe (John 1:1). Kurios is the Septuagint representation of the Hebrew Yahweh of the Tanakh. This shows us that Paul had already taught these new believers, from both Jewish and pagan backgrounds, about the deity of Yeshua.
Also, in verses 5 and 6 Paul mentions the Holy Spirit, whose power applied the gospel to the hearts of the Thessalonians. So, in his short time with these new believers, Paul had grounded them in the doctrine of the trinity, including the deity of Yeshua the Christ.
Whenever people say that they don't believe in the deity of Christ, I realize that they don't know God or the Bible. The teaching of the Lord's deity is fundamental, and it is everywhere in Scripture. For example:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." Luke 19:10 ESV
Yeshua is here declaring his deity. Do you see it? You would if you were familiar with the book of Ezekiel,
"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. Ezekiel 34:11 ESV
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. Ezekiel 34:15-16 ESV
Yahweh said in Ezekiel 34, "I will seek the lost…." Then Yeshua came along and said, "the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." By using this phrase, knowing the people knew the Scripture, Yeshua was claiming to be Yahweh in the flesh, Israel's shepherd savior.
David Flusser, who was a devout Orthodox Jew and a professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said "You poor Christians, you wonder why the Bible doesn't say Jesus is God more often. It says it all the time, you just don't understand Jewish thought."
Let me give you an example of what he means.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." Revelation 1:8 ESV
Here Yeshua is saying, "I am from eternity to eternity." The Jews would express the whole compass of things by א aleph and ת tau, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. If we go back to Isaiah we read:
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Isaiah 44:6 ESV
In light of Isaiah, Yeshua was clearly claiming to be Yahweh of hosts, the only living and true God! Let's move on.
Paul is telling the suffering Thessalonians that they are in union with God the Father, Yeshua, and the Spirit. They are in union with the Triune God. Paul talks about the all-important place of our union with Christ often in his writings.
so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Yeshua, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 1 Corinthians 1:29-30 ESV
Notice that it is God who creates the union. "Because of him you are in Christ Yeshua." Literally, "From Him you are in Christ Yeshua." He creates the union by His grace. We embrace it by faith.
Notice the importance of this union with Christ. If you are in Christ, by God's doing, Christ becomes for you "wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." All that Christ is for you, He is for you because you are "in Him." Because you are united to Him.
The epistolary salutation ends with a blessing: "Grace to you and peace." In his greeting of grace and peace, Paul gives what Jewish-Christians would have recognized as an echo of the ancient Aaronic blessing for God's holy people Israel. We see this in Numbers 6.
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. "So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them." Numbers 6:24-27 ESV
"Grace" is from the Greek word charis. It is a variation of the normal Greek greeting, charein, meaning "rejoice." The heart of the gospel is that God's grace or unmerited favor is extended to sinners. Because Christ paid the penalty for all our sins on the cross, God's holy justice is satisfied. Grace always precedes peace.
"Peace" was the normal Hebrew greeting ("Shalom"). We have peace with God because He is gracious to us in Christ.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Yeshua the Christ. Romans 5:1 ESV
Paul is addressing believers, the family of God. "Since we have been justified by faith" (the Greek here uses the aorist passive "having been justified"). The aorist points to a past act by God (divine passive) to declare sinners righteous. "Since we have been justified" indicates that God has already accomplished this work.
"We have peace with God through our Lord Yeshua the Christ." What does peace with God mean? It means the war is over. It means that God is no longer our enemy and is no longer promising judgment and death. Peace with God is the new status between God and the believer which flows from the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. By virtue of Christ's death on the cross, it is possible for men who are separated from God to become the friends of God and to have peace with God. Peace is one of the fundamental characteristics of the Messianic Kingdom anticipated in the Tanakh and fulfilled in the New Testament.
Biblically speaking, peace is always the product of knowing and appropriating the Grace of God in Yeshua. This order can never be reversed. Ignore the grace of God and you forfeit the peace of God. The more we grasp and experience the grace of God, the more capacity we have to experience the many wonderful aspects of God's peace.
William Barclay wrote: "When Paul took and put together these two great words, grace and peace, charis and eirene, he was doing something very wonderful. He was taking the normal greeting phrases of two great nations and molding them into one."
After his salutation, Paul's first sentence goes from verse 2 through verse 5. But there's too much to cover in those verses. So, we are just going to look at the first 2 verses this morning.
There is something else that is unique about Paul's greeting. It is long, very long—three chapters long! It is only when we get to chapter 4 that Paul begins to exhort the Thessalonians. This is the only letter of Paul in which the introductory thanksgiving is not limited to the opening paragraph but covers the span of the first three chapters.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 1 Thessalonians 1:2 ESV
"We"—this refers to Paul, Silas and Timothy. Paul used this plural pronoun more often in 1 Thessalonians than in any other letter. It is uncertain how this affected the process of writing the book. Paul often used scribes. Exactly how much freedom these scribes had is unknown.
"Give thanks to God"—is a present active indicative indicating continuous action. A spirit of thanksgiving characterizes the entire letter (cf. 2:13; 3:9). Paul had a wonderful relationship with this church, as he also did with the church at Philippi.
As believers we have a duty to be grateful for the daily grace and love that God lavishes on us. The more we understand what our redemption means, the more we will lift up our voices in heartfelt praise to our Savior.
Why does Paul give thanks to God rather than commending the Thessalonians for their wise choice to believe in Christ? It's because Paul understands that salvation is a sovereign work of God. We'll talk about this next week.
"Constantly mentioning you"—this is a present active participle. This shows Paul's intense, abiding concern for these believers. He thought of and thanked God often for these converts, as he did for all the churches.
"Constantly" is hyperbole meaning very often. Obviously, Paul did not mean that he spent all his time praying for the Thessalonians. He prayed for them continually, rather than continuously.
Believers, prayer is something that we all should be involved in. Notice what Paul says to the believers at Colossae.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. Colossians 4:2 ESV
Continue steadfastly is from the Greek word proskartereō which calls attention to something that is regular, loved, and prioritized. The word is used of a ruler's devotion to his task, that is, his busying himself with the priorities of his office. Proskartereō implies that you are busily engaged in something, persisting in it with regularity.
Prayer is a declaration of our dependence upon God. Every time I pray, I am saying, "God, I need you!" We ask God's forgiveness because we know we are dependent upon Him to forgive. We thank Him in prayer because we know that whatever we are or have has come from Him. We petition Him because only He can give us what we need. We know that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, and prayer is humility in action. It is saying, "God I can't do this, so I come to you acknowledging my need." Does your prayer life declare that you are dependent upon God for everything?
This Church at Thessalonica was very young, yet it was a very solid church. As we continue to study this letter, we will see why Paul was so thankful for them.