I Thessalonians 2:13-16
Sunday School Lesson for September 16, 2001
The note of thanksgiving, initially advanced in 1:2, continues in this section as Paul remembers how the Thessalonians responded to the preaching of the gospel. Two significant reasons for praise surface in the mind of the apostle as he reflects upon the young congregation.
Thanksgiving for their Reception of the Gospel—2:13
The apostle announces that as he contemplates the believers of Thessalonica, he is promoted to "constantly thank God" for them. Specifically, he has in mind their joyful and enthusiastic reception of Paul and his message of salvation through Christ alone. As we analyze this verse, several significant facts surface:
- First, they both "received" and "accepted" Paul’s message. Their hearts were open and had been warmed to the truth of the gospel. This indicates that the Holy Spirit had performed His ministry of enlightenment, illumination, conviction, and regeneration among the people of Thessalonica even before Paul and his companions arrived on the scene. As in the case of Lydia, the Lord had already opened their hearts to "respond to the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14).
- Secondly, they welcomed Paul’s preaching and teaching as the "word of God’s message." That is, the Thessalonian believers understood and affirmed that Paul’s message was, in fact, supernatural. It was not the product of Paul’s highly trained mind, nor that of any other man. It was, as far as they were concerned, the very "word of God" to be welcomed, understood, and faithfully obeyed.
- Thirdly, the word which they had so freely received was dynamic and powerful—"which also performs its work in you who believe." Literally, Paul is saying that the Word of God energized their lives for Christian service and witness in the world—even in the hostile environment in which they were called to serve Christ. In startling contrast to other messages, philosophies, or theologies, the powerful and effectual Word of God radically changed their lives down to the core. The evidence of this pervasive change, which Paul presented in detail in 1:5-10, was apparent to all who came into contact with believers from Thessalonica (see below).
Thanksgiving for Their Christian Perseverance—2:14-16
Having heard and believed the Word of God, they became "imitators" of their fellow Christians in "Judea" who were also suffering persecution as a result of their faith in Christ. F. F. Bruce notes that this was "no merely external resemblance. Persecution, according to the [New Testament], is a natural concomitant of Christian faith, and for the believers in Thessalonica to undergo suffering for Christ’s sake proves that they are fellow-members of the same body as the Judean churches" (1&2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 45, 45). That they had endured the exact "same sufferings" as their brethren in Judea provided convincing evidence of the reality and genuineness of their faith. It is significant that Paul identifies the Judean Christians as belonging to the "churches of God in Christ Jesus." This description, aside from advancing the full divinity of Jesus, reveals the essential unity and fellowship known by all who follow Christ as Lord (see 1:1). When one believer or group of Christians is called upon to suffer for Christ, all who know and confess the same Lord suffer as well. To summarize, Paul notes that their perseverance, in the face of considerable hostility and resistance, was the God-glorifying verification of their reception of the Word that had been preached to them.
In this striking passage, Paul sets forth the exact nature of the rejection of the gospel by the Jews—his "kinsmen according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:3). It was this ethnic group, along with "your own countrymen," that had opposed the missionaries during their initial work in the city of Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), and had also perpetrated the persecution of the Judean believers. As the apostle reflected upon the persistence and faithfulness of the Thessalonians, he depicts here in dramatic terms the nature of the opposition they and the missionaries had faced. This description, far from serving as an unjustified vilification of Paul’s Jewish kinsmen, simply highlights the strength of the Thessalonian’s resolve in their faithful service of Christ’s kingdom.
- "who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets" (v. 15)—Here Paul, in agreement with other descriptions of the death of Christ, lays principle blame for His execution at the feet of unbelieving Jews. As Charles Wanamaker observes, such a charge that "the Jewish people were responsible for the death of the prophets [and Jesus] is certainly not novel in the [New Testament]" (The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 114). Note the following passages: Matt. 23:29-37; Luke 11:47-51; John 5:18; 7:1; 8:59; 11:45-53; 18:14, 31. That Paul quotes from 1 Kings 19:10-14 in Romans 11:3 reveals that Paul understood a "continuity in the pattern of Jewish rejection of God’s agents from [Old Testament] times to his own" (Wanamaker, 115).
- "and drove us out" (v. 15)—This may be a reference to Paul’s experience in the city of Thessalonica, Acts 17:5-10, and the continuing trials that necessitated his exit from Beroea, Acts 17:13-14 (see Bruce, 47).
- "are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men" (v. 15)—This charge stands in direct contrast to Paul’s own missionary ambition reflected in 2:4, and his fervent desire for the Thessalonian believers, 2:12. That the hostile, unbelieving Jews do not please God signals their rejection of His Messiah, who alone has effected peace between God and man by means of His atoning death (Romans 5:1). This rejection of God’s way of salvation precipitated strong Jewish opposition to Paul’s evangelistic enterprises as well as a general hostility towards all believers. The point here is that they have displayed "a consistent attitude of opposition to God’s way and God’s people" (Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 13, 56).
- "hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles" (v. 16)—The Jewish opposition to the mission and ministry of Paul is a fact frequently addressed in the book of Acts. See 13:45-50; 14:2, 19 for examples. The aim of this resistance was to prevent the Gentiles from embracing the message of salvation through a crucified Jewish rabbi. Indeed, such a "gospel" was thoroughly repulsive to many Jewish political and religious leaders.
- "they always fill up the measure of their sins" (v. 16)—Here Paul declares that with their consistent and fervent opposition to the truth of God as revealed in Christ, the Jewish people of his day "piled sin upon sin" (Morris, 56). This downward death-spiral into sin was initiated with the rejection of God’s messengers, the prophets, followed by the murder of Jesus, and now culminates in their open hostility, violent opposition, and virtual declaration of war against the Lord’s ambassadors. In this sense, they have allowed their sin to run its full course (see Bruce, 48). Compare this statement with Paul’s comments concerning the Jewish people in Romans 9-11.
- "But wrath has come upon them to the utmost" (v. 16)—This dramatic and solemn pronouncement reveals the finality of the consequences of their rejection of Christ and hostility to the church—"They have reached the point of no return in their opposition to the gospel and final, irremediable retribution is inevitable; indeed it has come" (Bruce, 48). There is no turning back for those who have resisted Christ to this degree.
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: The place of the Word of God in the life of the believer—Paul claims that God’s Word changes the believer, but how? What is this "work" which the Word "performs" in our lives? What about the believer who, due to neglect, is not regularly exposed to the Word?
Two: The value of suffering for Christ—What benefit is there in suffering for one’s faith in Christ? How does suffering and persecution empower the church’s witness in the world? Should believers today be surprised when they are ridiculed, slandered, or rejected because of Christ? How should we respond to our persecutors?
Three: The consequences of rejecting the truth—What will eventually happen to those people who repeatedly reject the truth of Scripture, particularly the gospel of Christ? How does the release of God’s wrath upon unbelievers factor into the gospel? Is it necessary when witnessing to mention the "bad news"?