The Thessalonians received the gospel in tribulation but remained faithful in anticipation of the arrival of Jesus – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.
Opposition to the new faith forced Paul to leave Thessalonica before his work was completed. When he attempted to return to the city, he was thwarted “by Satan.” Because of anxieties about the congregation, he sent Timothy to investigate. His first letter is his thankful response after receiving good news about the congregation’s faithfulness.
In its opening section, Paul anticipates the subjects he will discuss in the remainder of the letter, including the tribulations of believers, the basis for Christian hope, the “coming” of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead, and the impending “wrath” unbelievers will experience when he arrives.
- (1 Thessalonians 1:1) – “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; Grace to you and peace.”
Thessalonica was one of the leading cities of Macedonia. Due to its location, travelers and trade goods moving overland between Rome and the eastern provinces passed through the city, contributing to its prosperity.
Paul and his coworkers, Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy brought Christianity to the city. According to Acts, Silas was a Jew, a prophet, and a Roman citizen. He was Paul’s constant companion during his second missionary journey. Timothy joined him and Silas early in this endeavor – (Acts 15:32, 16:1-4, 16:20-37, 17:1-9).
By ‘Macedonia’ Paul referred to the Roman province of that name that encompassed much of the former kingdom of Macedonia. ‘Achaia’ was the Roman province that included much of southern Greece, including Athens and Corinth.
The “assembly in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Greek noun ekklésia, commonly translated “church” means “assembly, congregation,” essentially, individuals assembled for a particular purpose. Paul’s application of the term is derived from the Hebrew Bible, and especially its references to the “congregation” of Israel gathered before the Tabernacle in worship – the qahal Yahweh, the “assembly of Yahweh” – (Deuteronomy 23:1).
With the death and resurrection of Jesus, the saints gathered for worship as the “assembly in God and the Lord Jesus.” The image is fitting. The believers in Thessalonica constituted a people distinct from the surrounding pagan society, converts who endured “tribulation” because of their allegiance to Jesus. Like ancient Israel, they were sojourning in the “wilderness” on their way to the “promised land.”
- (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4) – “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope of our Lord Jesus Christ before our God and Father; knowing, brethren beloved of God, your election.”
Their “endurance of hope” was forward-looking. They looked to the day when Jesus would “arrive” to gather his saints, and the Thessalonians would be Paul’s “hope and joy and crown of boasting.” Unlike their pagan neighbors, they were not “without hope” over the deaths of their compatriots, for when Jesus returned, “those also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him” – (1 Thessalonians 2:16, 4:13).
“Your election.” The Greek term eklektos simply means “chosen.” The Thessalonians had been “chosen” by God to become his “assembly” in this city, and their receipt of the gospel with joy despite opposition more than justified His choice. They were “chosen” because they were “beloved by God.”
- (1 Thessalonians 1:5-7) – “How that our gospel came not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance; even as you know what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sake. And you became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation, with joy of the Holy Spirit, and you became examples to all that believe in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
Most certainly, the Thessalonians were impressed by Paul’s message that was accompanied by “power in the Holy Spirit.” Nevertheless, most striking was their acceptance of the gospel “in much tribulation.” The Greek term thlipsis originally meant a “pressing together,” hence the idea of “pressure.” From this developed the sense of “affliction, tribulation.”
From the time of his arrival, Paul and his coworkers faced opposition, especially from the Jewish leaders of the synagogue. Things became so tense that Paul had to leave the city before his work was finished, hence his anxiety over the state of the church.
But in this passage, Paul is doing more than just recalling the past. “Tribulation” anticipates his later statements made for the benefit of the Thessalonians. For example, his declaration that God has “appointed us for tribulation” – (Acts 17:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:3).
- (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10) – “But in every place, your faith which is toward God has gone forth so that no need have we to be saying anything; for they themselves concerning us do tell what manner of entrance we had to you, and how you turned to God from the idols to be serving a living and true God, and awaiting his Son out of the heavens, whom he raised from among the dead, Jesus, who is rescuing us out of the coming wrath.”
They had turned from “idols to serve the true God.” This suggests the church was composed primarily of Gentile converts, which is borne out by the account in Acts – (And some of them were persuaded and consorted with Paul and Silas, and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women, not a few” – Acts 17:4).
Paul is describing how their life orientation was altered, and quite radically so. Instead of serving dead idols, now, they were now serving the “true and living God.” Rather than a comfortable life in Thessalonica, they chose the path that guaranteed opposition.
In the passage, Paul uses two infinitive clauses to express how disciples must live. First, turn from idols “to serve a living and true God”; and second, “to await his Son from heaven.”
The Son of God will “arrive from heaven.” One day, Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout” to gather his followers. And the one for whom the Thessalonians are eagerly waiting is the son of “the living and true God,” not another dead idol. And he is the same man that “God raised from the dead.” Thus, Paul anchors his future hope in the past resurrection of Jesus – (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Jesus is the “one who is rescuing” his disciples. The verb translates the Greek present tense participle that means “rescue, deliver, save.” The present tense signifies an action in progress. While Paul has a future event in view, the present tense stresses that, even now, Jesus is in the process of rescuing his people.
And he is rescuing them from the “wrath,” which also is in the process of “coming.” The two participles contrast two processes – rescue for some, wrath for others. Both will be consummated at his “arrival.”
Christians must not be dismayed by tribulation and persecution. While the “arrival” of Jesus will bring wrath upon their unrepentant opponents, it also will mean rescue for the righteous who wait patiently and eagerly for that day – vindication for some, but condemnation for others.