When You Started Out

Explore the Bible Series

December 7, 2008

 

Background Passage: I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Lesson Passage: I Thessalonians 1:1-10

 

Introduction:

 

I Thessalonians is an invaluable resource for the study of early Christianity. Most scholars agree that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter earlier than any other book of the New Testament.  If so, I Thessalonians, penned about 50 A.D., is the first written witness to Christ and to the development of the earliest Christian communities. 

 

Authorship: Most theologians agree that Paul wrote I Thessalonians.  Both letters to this church link Timothy and Silas to Paul’s work, and it is possible one or both of these men may have assisted in writing these epistles.  We know, for instance, that Silas helped Simon Peter with writing I Peter (See I Peter 5:12).

 

Occasion and Date: Acts 17:1-9 records Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica.  The apostle and Silas had recently worked in Philippi where the two missionaries met with great hardship.  After miraculous release from prison, the men made their way west to Thessalonica.  The city had a synagogue, and Paul met, for three Sabbaths, with the local Jews.  Many of the God-fearing Gentiles and some prominent women embraced Paul’s message, but the majority of the Jews, motivated by jealousy, opposed Paul’s work.  The angry synagogue leaders provoked a violent riot, and Paul and Silas were forced to leave for Berea.  Some time later Paul went to Athens and Corinth, and, as he labored to spread the gospel, the apostle grew anxious about the infant church in Thessalonica.  He wrote this first epistle to encourage the new believers.  Most commentators believe Paul wrote I Thessalonians, from Athens or Corinth, in 51 A.D.

 

Major Themes:

  1. Paul’s defense of his character: Apparently, Paul’s enemies continued to slander the apostle, long after he left the city.  They hoped, it seems, to discredit the gospel by criticizing Paul’s character.  In particular, it seems they accused Paul of taking financial advantage of the new believers (See I Thessalonians 2:1-12). 
  2. Preparation for suffering: The Thessalonians church had been born in the midst of great opposition to the gospel.  Furthermore, these young believers had heard of Paul’s continued suffering, and the apostle anticipated that they too might experience persecution.  The first verses of Chapter Three outline some of Paul’s thoughts about suffering.
  3. Correction of false teaching about the return of Christ: Some of the believers wondered about those who died before Jesus returned, and Paul wrote to reassure them that the dead in Christ would share in the glory of the Second Coming. 

 

 

Lesson Outline:

 

I.                   Salutation (1:1): The salutation to I Thessalonians follows the familiar Pauline pattern. It’s interesting to me that Paul does not employ a Trinitarian formula in his salutations—typically only mentions the Father and the Son.  As in other places, he included a greeting from his companions, in this case Timothy and Silvanus (Silas), and he addressed the congregation to whom he wrote the epistle.  The typical greeting “grace and peace” accompanies most of Paul’s writings.  Two assistants worked with Paul, in Corinth.

A.    Silvanus: This man was held in high esteem by the Jerusalem church (See Acts 15:22). His name indicates a Hellenistic background, and some scholars believe he may have been a Roman citizen.  After the disagreement that divided Paul and Barnabas, Silas accompanied Paul on the Second Missionary Journey.  He also served as an assistant to the Apostle Peter, at some point, and church tradition indentifies Silas as bishop in Corinth.

B.     Timothy: This young man joined Paul and Silas at either Derbe or Lystra, during the Second Missionary journey.  He came from a mixed family, a Gentile father and Jewish mother.  We know nothing about Timothy’s father, but the Bible indentifies his mother as Lois and his grandmother as Eunice.  The Book of Acts recounts that Timothy embraced Christianity during Paul’s first Journey; then, when Paul revisited the area, Timothy joined the missionary band (See Acts 16:1f).  Periodically, Timothy accompanied Paul on the Third Missionary Journey, and we have reliable indications that he attended Paul during the apostle’s Roman imprisonment.  Some historians think Timothy later served as bishop in Ephesus and died as a martyr under Domitian or Nerva.

 

II.                Paul’s Gratitude for the Church in Thessalonica (vv. 2-10): The first paragraph of the epistle centers on Paul’s gratitude to God for the Christians at Thessalonica.  His thanksgiving focuses on the following points.

A.    Introduction to Paul’s statement of thanksgiving (vv. 2-3): The apostle mentioned his continued prayers for his friends, and thanked God for three Christian qualities he observed.

1.      “your work of faith”: This phrase tells us much about Paul’s understanding of faith.  Faith is not a passive, inert quality; rather, it is active and vigorous.  It involves a strenuous exertion of the will and always issues in the fruit of good works. 

2.      “your labor of love”: Like faith, love requires great diligence.  It takes work to build and maintain the bonds of Christian fellowship.  Paul commends the Thessalonians for efforts to manifest the love of Christ.

3.      steadfast hope”: Paul concludes his trilogy (faith, love and hope) with an encouragement for his readers to remain steadfast.  Hope, in Pauline theology, is much more than wishful thinking.  It entails a resolute confidence and expectation of good from the hand of God.  I don’t want to press this distinction too hard, but, as faith looks back to the finished work of Christ, hope looks forward to continued blessings that arise from the Lord’s redemptive work. 

B.     Paul’s gratitude for God’s election of the saints in Thessalonica (vv. 4-6): God’s choice of his people runs as an essential thread through the entire Bible. Don’t miss the pastoral implications of this mysterious doctrine.  These people had embraced the gospel at great cost and hardship (See v. 6).  No doubt, many of them experienced the rupture of relationships with friends and family, and the culture of Thessalonica proved difficult for these people who must have felt rejected and abandoned.  Paul encouraged his readers that, while they may endure the hardship of human rejection, they were the chosen people of God.  Election grows from the love of God, and is evidenced by the saint’s faith in the gospel message, a message that came to the Thessalonians in the power of the Holy Spirit and much affliction. 

C.     Paul’s gratitude for the example set by the Thessalonian believers (vv. 7-10): Because of rising hostilities in Thessalonica, Paul could not remain long in the city.  Perhaps he feared that the gospel would flounder with only an infant church to carry on the work, but these believers flourished.  The ever-expanding influence of the church had encouraged Paul in several ways.

1.      “your faith in God has gone forth everywhere”: In particular, their gospel influence had spread through Achaia (the Peloponnesian peninsula- modern Greece) and Macedonia.

2.      “you have turned… from idols”: Paul emphasized that the Thessalonians had “turned to God from idols.”  This phrase indicates that many of these believers were Gentiles, Greeks once given to the prevalent idolatry of the Mediterranean.

3.      “to wait for his Son from heaven”:  This phrase relates to the call for hope that Paul expressed in verse three, and it introduces one of the important themes of I and II Thessalonians, the glorious return for Christ.  In this case, Paul emphasized Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the Lord’s redemptive work that delivers his people from the wrath to come.d the