1. The Secret of Bountiful Believers (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (23:21)

The best place to begin our study of the Thessalonian epistles is to examine the historical context, the founding of the congregation probably only a year or so before these letters were written.

Paul's Second Missionary Journey

On his Second Missionary Journey, Paul had travelled through Asia Minor. Paul wasn't a "solo missionary," rather he operated with a small team -- in this case it consisted of Paul, Silas, and Timothy.[4]

At Troas, Paul has a vision of a Man of Macedonia asking him to come and help them. He takes it as God's call, travelling to Macedonia and later to Greece (Achaia).

In Philippi he begins a church, but Paul and Silas end up being beaten and thrown in jail. They are released by means of an earthquake, convert their jailer and his family, but are still asked to leave by the city officials in the morning.

Founding the Church in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10)

Map showing location of Thessalonica and Philippi in Macedonia
Larger map

Undeterred, Paul and his band continue south to Thessalonica.

"1 When they had passed through[5] Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As his custom[6] was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with[7] them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining[8] and proving[9] that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women." (Acts 17:1-4)

"God-fearing Greeks" (NIV), or "devout Greeks" (NRSV, KJV) are non-Jews who were attracted to the synagogue because of the high morality expounded by Judaism. They are not full proselytes, however, since they typically stopped short of circumcision. To lose a "large number" of this group would have had a strong impact on the synagogue -- and its finances.

Some of the converts are women of high rank, wives of city officials. However, most of the converts seem to have been Gentiles from the working class, and many of these are saved not from the synagogue, but directly from paganism (1:9). The Jews in Thessalonica are upset that Paul is attracting such a large following and seek to stop him.

"5 But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace,[10] formed a mob[11] and started a riot[12] in the city. They rushed[13] to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged[14] Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: 'These men who have caused trouble[15] all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.'" (Acts 17:5-7)

Notice that the Jews don't attack Paul directly. They find "some bad characters from the marketplace" to do their dirty work for them. An historical note helps us understand the charge made before the city officials. In this period, a militant messianic movement (different from Christianity) was spreading among Jewish communities. To stop the violence, in 49 AD Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome -- which is why Aquila and Priscilla had recently moved from Rome to Corinth (Acts 18:2).

So when the mob accuses Paul and Silas of having "caused trouble all over the world" and "defying Caesar's decrees" with regard to a messiah figure, they are connecting Paul and Silas to the recent civil unrest among the Jews in Rome. That's why the Jews couldn't bring these charges themselves.[16]

"8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.[17]
9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. 10 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea." (Acts 17:8-10a)

Jason is a prominent Jew who has converted to Christ, since elsewhere Paul seems to refer to him as a kinsman (Romans 16:21). The Greek name "Jason" was common among the Hellenistic Jews, who used it for "Jesus" or "Joshua."[18] Jason is apparently forced to put up money and pledge to the city officials that Paul and his band would leave the city and not cause further problems.

But the Thessalonian Jews don't stop there. They disrupt Paul's ministry in the next city, too.

"When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating[19] the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea." (Acts 17:13-14)  

Paul travels to Athens and stays there for a time. Later he goes to the Greek city of Corinth, where he apparently writes the Thessalonian letters.

What follows is the first discussion question of this lesson series. Think deeply about the questions. If you go to the trouble of writing down your answers, it will help you form your answer carefully and thoughtfully. Then click on the web address (URL) following the question to post your answer in an online forum and read others' answers. Grasping spiritual lessons at the heart-level is the whole point of studying 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Do it!

Q1. (Acts 17:1-10) Why do you think there was so much strong opposition to Paul's ministry in Thessalonica? Why do you think Paul keeps preaching the gospel, even though there is often a violent reaction against him? Does a violent reaction to our ministry necessarily mean we should stop?
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Paul's Concern

Paul is now ministering in Corinth, but he is very concerned about the young church in Thessalonica that he had to leave so abruptly. They are so new to the faith, so young, under severe persecution, first from the Jews and now from the Gentiles. Will their faith survive or will they buckle under the pressure? Paul sends Timothy to Thessalonica to encourage the believers and report back how they are. Timothy has just returned with a glowing report. Paul is relieved and full of joy (3:5-6). The first part of the letter he sends back reflects his warm love for these new believers.

Salutation

First Thessalonians begins with the salutation. Different from our letters, where the addressee is mentioned first, in Greek letter-writing format the sender is mentioned first, then the recipient.

"Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you." (1:1)

These three senders constitute the apostolic church-planting team that founded the church in Thessalonica.[20] It is fitting that these three address the believers there, though Paul is probably the primary author.

Short Blessing (1:1b)

After the salutation, the typical Greek letter of the time would contain a short blessing. Greeks would typically write, "Favor, grace to you!" Jews would typically begin, "Shalom, peace to you." But Paul's characteristic greeting combines the two: "Grace and peace to you" (1:1b). In 2 Thessalonians and later epistles he amplifies this a bit: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

By this Paul means more than either the Greek or Jewish blessing alone. While the Greeks would wish good favor to the recipient, Paul wishes God's grace, his unmerited favor by which we are saved. While the Jews would extend a wish for peace, Paul extends a wish for both grace from God and the peace with God that comes through Jesus Christ. It is a thoroughly Christian blessing.

Greek Epistolary Style

Next in Greek epistolary style of the period[21] is an introductory thanksgiving or blessing, which comprises verses 2 through 10 here. After this would come the body -- the main occasion for the letter. At the end of a letter, the writer would convey some personal greetings from the family. With Paul it is usually personal greetings that link his missionary team with the recipients of the letter. The letter would conclude with a final blessing or benediction.

Constant Prayer (1:2-3)

Paul tells the Thessalonians that he is constantly praying for them.

"2 We always thank God for all of you, mentioning[22] you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember[23] 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." (1:2-3)

Whenever Paul and his team pray, they speak the names of the Thessalonians before God. Notice that Paul is praying "always"[24] (verse 2) and "continually"[25] (verse 3). His prayers for them go on day and night. Even as he is working at his trade of sewing tents he is praying. He loves these people; they are always on his heart.

God's Calling Was Very Evident (1:4-5a)

"4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction." (1:4-5a)

By this time in his career, Paul has spoken in scores of villages and dozens of synagogues all across Syria, Crete, Asia Minor, and Macedonia. But he recalls that when he spoke to the Thessalonians, he saw a powerful confirmation that God had chosen them. When Paul was speaking, there was a special power of the Holy Spirit that was unique. Miracles probably were evident that had a great effect on the hearers (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

The result was deep conviction.[26] Accounts of revivals throughout the world in the last two centuries indicate the presence of this kind of deep conviction that results in repentance and faith. Without revival, so many of the conversions we see are intellectual and emotional in nature. Often they don't get to the inner person. The Thessalonian ministry was powerful and unique.

There are times when our message seems to fall on deaf ears. We try, we say the words, but there seems to be little effect. In Thessalonica it was different. There was an amazing receptivity (2:13). The power of the Spirit was unmistakable. Paul knew that God was doing something special. God had truly chosen these new disciples to establish his name in Thessalonica.

How can we have a similar result today? We need two things:

  1. Earnest, intercessory prayer. When we realize that we can't accomplish the task of salvation, we learn how to pray and trust God. We listen for God's voice, and when we hear it, we obey. Great evangelism must be undergirded by great prayer. The most significant people in an evangelistic campaign may not be the outward spokesmen, but the behind-the-scenes intercessors.
  2. Miracles. Some believe that the day of miracles is over, that signs and wonders were for the apostolic age before the New Testament canon was complete. That after the New Testament was written, there was no more need for miracles. Frankly, dear friends, this is a rationalization that has no scriptural basis. Paul indicated that some would have spiritual gifts of healings, faith, and miracles (1 Corinthians 12:9-10, 29-30). So did Jesus (Mark 16:18).[27] The Book of Acts gives many indications of the power of miracles to win people to Christ. And a careful reading of church history shows many, many incidents of healing and miracles after apostolic times. To refuse to believe God for miracles in our day is rationalized unbelief! I may not have those gifts, but somewhere in our congregations, God has gifted people in this way. We need to seek out these gifted people and nurture them.

Q2. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5) Why is the Holy Spirit's working so necessary to effective ministry? What happens when the main power behind our ministry is will-power? What is the role of miracles in Paul's evangelism? What would happen if we saw miracles in evangelism in our day? What is hindering this?
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Election and Predestination (1:4)

"For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you...." (1:4)

Paul marveled that God "has chosen[28] you." There is a mystery in God's choosing or election. Why is one group receptive, but not another? The gospel is open to "whosoever" (Mark 10:32), but no one can come unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). We are called to declare the gospel to all nations (Matthew 24:14; 28:19-20; Luke 24:47), but people cannot understand the Word unless God opens their eyes to it (Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14; 26:18). I don't think it's worth grinding our mental gears somehow trying to understand predestination and election -- it's beyond us. But, like Paul, our job is to listen to the Holy Spirit and then obey Him, even if it lands us in jail for witnessing of our faith.

Imitators of Paul and of the Lord (1:5b-6a)

When Paul was expelled from Thessalonica, his enemies did their best to trash his reputation. Now he hints that the Thessalonians aren't fooled by what had been said. They know his manner of life. Indeed, they had imitated him -- and the Lord.

"5b You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators[29] of us and of the Lord." (1:5b-6a)

As Paul had told the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11:1:

"Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (NRSV)
"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (NIV)

It's so important that a congregation's leader or leaders are carefully imitating Christ; otherwise, the people who follow them will develop twisted characters. It's the same responsibility that parents bear to provide good examples to children who will pattern their lives after what they see in their parents.

Sometimes I hear people say that they don't need church. That they can study the Bible in the privacy of their homes. That theirs is a private faith. Hogwash! The Christian faith portrayed for us in the Bible exists in community. People who isolate themselves from the Christian community miss out on vital character formation that Christ intended: (1) Christian role models to emulate, and (2) spiritual gifts in the body to build them up and help them grow healthy. We can tell ourselves we don't need church, but that's self-deceit promoted by the devil. The Christian church is God's plan to help mature us -- and to involve us in Christ's mission to our communities.

Q3. (1 Thessalonians 1:5b-6a) How important is imitation in the formation of a new Christian's spiritual life? What kinds of ministry are most conducive to imitation? Why is the character of the mentor or leader so important to the health of the church? How well do people grow in Christ who aren't part of a Christian community? In what way is your character important to your family and spiritual children?
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Joy in the Midst of Suffering (1:6b-9a)

"In spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia -- your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us." (1:6b-9a)

"Suffering" (NIV), "persecution" (NRSV), "affliction" (KJV) is thlipsis, literally, "pressing, pressure." Here it is used in a metaphorical sense, "trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction, tribulation."[30] The Thessalonians were under great pressure -- both at the time Paul was preaching to them as well as after Paul had been driven out of town. Yet they welcomed[31] the message with "joy given by the Holy Spirit."

Paul still marvels at their faith and brags about them to the other churches -- probably at Corinth in particular, where he is writing this letter. In spite of the newness of their faith, the Thessalonians have become a "model" (NIV), "example" (NRSV), "ensample" (KJV)[32] of faith to other new believers.

It isn't just Paul bragging; others have heard of this church and passed the word. The Thessalonian church has become legendary throughout the whole area for its receptivity[33] to the gospel. 

From Idols to the Living and True God (1:9b)

"They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. (1:9b)

This is particularly remarkable to Paul, because the bulk of the converts in Thessalonica were not God-fearers, Gentiles who attended synagogue and believed the Jewish scriptures. After the initial influx of God-fearers from the synagogue (Acts 17:4), there was a powerful movement among out-and-out pagans to believe in Jesus and be baptized. The background of the majority of his readers is evident by Paul's style in this epistle. He doesn't quote the Old Testament very profusely, since he isn't arguing before Jews. Rather he explains things simply, relying upon his own authority as an apostle and upon the direct teaching of Jesus (4:15).

The Gospel in a Nutshell (1:10)

Finally, Paul remarks on the expectation of the Thessalonian believers:

"10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath." (1:10)

In this one verse, Paul reminds the believers of five foundational truths which are at the core of the gospel.

  1. Jesus Christ is God's Son. It is just a reference here, no doubt, to much more thorough teaching that he had given in person when he first won them to Christ.
  2. Jesus Christ will return. Every chapter (except one) in 1 and 2 Thessalonians has something to say about Christ's coming. It is a persistent theme of both letters (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2:1-14).
  3. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. Paul mentions this again later in the letter:  "We believe that Jesus died and rose again." (4:14).
  4. Jesus Christ is our Savior. He has stood in our place, he took our sins upon him on the cross to rescue us from the punishment we so richly deserve.[34]
  5. God's wrath is coming upon sin. Our age has rejected the idea of accountability to God -- and even of the reality of sin. They don't believe in the wrath of God against sin -- or at least they suppress that thought most of the time. That certain and terrible judgment is another theme of these letters (1 Thessalonians 2:16; 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:5, 7-8; 2:12).

Q4. (1 Thessalonians 1:10) What does verse 10 teach us about the Christian faith? Which of these elements are most important? Which are less important? Which are underemphasized by the church in our day?
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Signs that God has chosen you (1:4-10)

We can summarize the first chapter of this letter by enumerating the signs that God has chosen the Thessalonians -- the secret of them being bountiful believers:

  1. They received the gospel, which was presented with spiritual power and miraculous manifestations.
  2. They imitated Paul and welcomed his message.
  3. They exhibited joy in the face of persecution.
  4. They became a model to other believers.
  5. They turned from idols to the true and living God.
  6. They have an expectation of Christ's coming.

Dear friend, if you were to examine your own life and its fruits, what would be the signs that God has chosen you? I don't ask this to put you on the spot, but to help you reflect on the fruit of God's working in your own life. You might find two or three manifestations, but probably will be able to list one or two dozen indications if you think about it. Thanks be to God for his gracious work in us who believe in Him.

Prayer

Father, we praise you for your powerful work in bringing unbelievers to Christ. We long to see your powerful conviction touch our relatives and friends, our neighbors and cities. O Lord, send revival among us that "sinners be converted and your name glorified."[35] In Jesus'name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"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." (1 Thessalonians 1:9b-10)

[4] Luke (who uses "we"to describe events) was clearly with the team in Philippi. But in Thessalonica, we're not sure.

[5] Diodeuō, "go, travel through" (BDAG 250, 1), "It means literally to make one's way (hodos) through (dia). They took the Egnatian Way..." (Robertson, Word Pictures).

[6] "Custom" (NIV, NRSV), "manner" isthe verbal adjective eithōs, "to maintain a custom or tradition, be accustomed" (BDAG 295).

[7] "Reasoned with" (NIV, KJV), "argued with" is dialegomai, "'to engage in speech interchange, converse, discuss, argue,' especially of instructional discourse that frequently includes exchange of opinions" (BDAG 232, 1).

[8] "Explaining" (NIV, NRSV), "opening" (KJV) is dianoigō, "explain, interpret" the Scriptures (BDAG 234, 2). This is the same word used when Jesus explained the Scriptures to the men on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection (Luke 24:32, 45).

[9] "Proving" (NIV, NRSV), "alleging" (KJV) is paratithēmi, "to place something before someone, set before," here, to "set forth in teaching," middle voice, "demonstrate, point out" (BDAG 772, 2b). Here, the KJV "alleging" doesn't mean asserting without proof. Rather, allege is used in the archaic sense of "to adduce or bring forward as a source or authority" (Robertson, Word Pictures; Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition).

[10] "Bad characters" (NIV), "ruffians" (NRSV), "lewd fellows" (KJV) is two words: the plural of anēr, "man, male" and ponēros, "pertaining to being morally or socially worthless, wicked, evil, bad, base, worthless, vicious, degenerate," here "rowdies, ruffians" (BDAG 853, 1aα). The are described as agoraios, "market people," specifically, "the crowd in the market place," and so "rabble" (BDAG 14, 1).

[11]  "Formed a mob" (NIV, NRSV), "gathered a company" (KJV) is ochlopoieō, "form a mob," not found elsewhere (BDAG 745), a compound verb from ochlos, "crowd, horde"+ "poieō, "do, make."

[12] "Started a riot" (NIV), "set the city in an uproar" (NRSV, KJV) is thorybeō, "throw into disorder" (BDAG 458, 1).

[13] "Rushed to" (NIV), "attacked" (NRSV), "assaulted" (KJV) is ephistēmi, "stand at or near," here, with the specific sense of "to come near with intention of harming, attack" (BDAG 418, 3).

[14] "Dragged" (NIV, NRSV), "drew" (KJV) is syrō, "drag, pull, draw, drag away" (BDAG 977).

[15] "Caused trouble" (NIV), "turn the world upside down" (NRSV, KJV) is anastatoō, "to upset the stability of a pers. or group, disturb, trouble, upset" (BDAG 72).

[16] See Bruce, 1&2 Thessalonians, xxiii-xxiv.

[17] "Were thrown into turmoil" (NIV), "were disturbed" (NRSV), "troubled" (KJV) is tarassō, "shake together, stir up," here figurative, "to cause inward turmoil, stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion" (BDAG 990, 2).

[18] John Hutchison and S.F. Hunter, "Jason," ISBE 2:970.

[19] "Agitating" (NIV), "stir up" (NRSV, KJV) is saleuō, "shake," here, figuratively, "to disturb inwardly, disturb, shake" (BDAG 912, 2).

[20] You can learn more about Silas and Timothy in the Introduction.

[21] Peter T. O'Brien, "Letters, Letter Forms, DPL, pp. 550-553.

[22] "Mentioning" (NIV, NRSV) is actually an idiom of two words, "making mention" (KJV), poieō, "make, do" and mneia, "remembrance, memory," here, "mention" (BDAG 654, 2).

[23] The Greek noun and verb for "mention" and "remember" are the same, mnēmoneuō, "remember, keep in mind, think of," also with focus on dramatic aspect of remembrance -- "mention" (BDAG 655, 1a).

[24] Pantote, "always, at all times" (BDAG 755).

[25] "Continually" (NIV), "constantly" (NRSV), "without ceasing" (KJV) is adialeiptōs, "constantly, unceasingly" (BDAG 20), "without intermission, incessantly ... not interrupting for a time something already begun" (Thayer, Lexicon, pp. 11, 139).

[26] "Conviction" (NIV, NRSV), "assurance" (KJV) is the noun plērophoria, "state of complete certainty, full assurance, certainty," here, "with full conviction" (BDAG 827). To emphasize the completeness of conviction, Paul modifies the noun with the adjective polys, "much," here with the idea of "great, strong, intense" conviction (Thayer).

[27] I am aware that the earliest manuscripts don't include the "longer ending" of Mark. However, it is clear by its inclusion in most manuscripts that this was the clear expectation of the primitive church. They were seeing these signs and wonders.

[28] "Chosen" (NIV, NRSV), "election" (KJV) is eklogē, "a special choice, selection, choice, election," from ek, "out of" + legō, "say, speak, call" (BDAG 306, 1). In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 he refers to their choosing with a different verb, haireō.

[29] "Imitators" (NIV, NRSV), "followers" (KJV) is mimētēs, "imitator," from mimos, "actor," that is, one who imitates a character for a performance (BDAG 652, a; Robertson, Word Pictures).

[30] Thlipsis, BDAG 457, 1.

[31] "Welcomed" (NIV), "received" (NRSV, KJV) is dechomai, "receive," here, "be receptive of, be open to, approve, accept" (BDAG 221, 5).

[32] The basic meaning of typos is "a mark made as the result of a blow or pressure." Then it becomes "copy, image." Here it refers to "an archetype serving as a model, type, pattern, model, example" (BDAG 1019-1020, 6b).

[33] "Reception" (NIV), "welcome" (NRSV), "manner of entering in" (KJV) is eisodos, "entrance," here figuratively, "act of finding acceptance" (BDAG 294, 3).

[34] "Rescues" (NIV, NRSV), "delivered" (KJV) is rhyomai, "to rescue from danger, save, rescue, deliver, preserve someone" (BDAG 907-908). Here Paul uses the word in a spiritual sense, to save a person from eternal death. However, the word is used most often of rescue from temporal perils. Much more common for spiritual salvation is the verb sōzō, "save" (2:10, 16), the noun sōtēria, "salvation" (5:8-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13), and the noun sōtēr, "Savior."

[35] This phrase is from the hymn "Pentecostal Power," by Charles H. Gabriel (1912).


Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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