After a short ministry in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave (Acts 17:1-10). Probably less than a year later, Paul heard that the believers there were being persecuted. Paul wrote to reassure them that their faith and sufferings were not in vain. This is one of his earliest letters.
Salutation (verse 1)
Verse 1 presents the authors and the audience: “Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.”
This letter does not follow some of the literary patterns Paul used in other letters. He says nothing about who he is, either as an apostle or servant of Christ. He names the church as being of the people (rather than “church of God”) and says that they are “in God” (rather than “in Christ”).
He begins the letter with grace, and ends it with grace (5:28), but never uses the word grace anywhere else. Apparently the Thessalonians were not worried about the way in which Christ saved them; they had other pastoral needs.
Received with joy (verses 2-6)
Greek letters often began with a brief prayer. Paul says that he has been praying about the believers in Thessalonica: “We always thank God for all of you, and continually mention you in our prayers. 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.”
Paul begins with faith, love and hope, observing that each of these virtues has results in a person’s behavior. He will later say more about how hope helps us endure difficulties, and the kind of life that flows from faith.
Paul assures the readers that they did not make a mistake in accepting the message: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.”
Was the power in the preaching, or seen in the people who believed? What did the Holy Spirit do? Was conviction in the preachers, or in the audience? Paul does not write enough for us to be sure.
Paul notes how the people responded: “You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Paul does not say what he did, other that living “for your sake.” He does not say what aspect of Jesus’ life they imitated, but his comment does imply that he told people something about the way Jesus lived.
An exemplary faith (verses 7-10)
Paul’s focus is not so much the example he set, but the example that the Thessalonians set—an example that had begun to teach other people: “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” Paul praises them for what they did, indirectly encouraging them to continue in it despite the troubles they faced. Unbelievers in Thessalonica may despise them, but people from other places admire them.
Their example spread like ripples in a pond: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.” Paul really doesn’t mean “everywhere”—this exaggeration is an example of motivational rhetoric, not an objective description of facts.
Paul follows that with another figure of speech: “Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.” Paul could go into other cities and people would say, “I hear that people in Thessalonica believed your message. What were you preaching?”
Paul repeats major elements of the message: “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” This was Paul’s message for pagans: repent of idolatry, serve God, and believe in Jesus, who died and was resurrected and will return, and through him we are saved from the judgment.
Paul does not say what the “wrath” is, nor the way in which Jesus rescues us. This letter does not even mention the cross; it is designed more for motivation than for instruction.
Things to think about
- How often do I thank God for other believers? (v. 2)
- In my experience, what kind of power and conviction came with the gospel? (v. 5)
- Am I a model for other believers to see and imitate? (v. 7)
Michael Morrison, 2008, 2013. Dr. Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at http://www.gcs.edu.