“The Church in Thessalonica”
1 Thess. 1:1-10
May 14, 1995
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Two weeks ago we completed our series of morning sermons in the Gospel of Luke. This morning we begin a new series. I chose Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians for a variety of reasons. I have never preached through them before and am myself looking forward to this study. It has been sometime since we have taken one of the letters of Paul and, given the extraordinary importance of his epistles — the biblical doctrine of the Christian life is above all else a Pauline doctrine — it can never be wise to be too long away from Paul. These letters have the great advantage of being short: it won’t take us more than two years to get through them as it did our series in Luke. And, still more, they are addressed to a particular church — a church like this church, a congregation with strengths and weaknesses, with a common life and a common personality and character. There is a sense in which — only a sense, I admit — the Gospels speak more directly to the individual Christian regarding the life of faith in its individuality.
The epistles address the life of the Christian as a member of the church and of a particular congregation.
It is important for us to balance these interests and perspectives. In some ways, of course, the Christian life is an intensely personal and private experience and its obligations are matters of the heart and the secret thoughts of the soul.
Down to Gehenna and up to the throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
But in many other ways the Christian life is a corporate existence and experience and is to be lived and must be lived in the company of others, in relationships our Savior has ordered for us and sanctified to our happiness and well-being. The life of the family is one of these relationships, but above that and still more important is the life of the church.
As the Scripture says (Ps. 87:2): “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.”
After a long Gospel then, it will be well for us to consider carefully our life together and Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica will help us do that.
This morning I want to place Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church in its historical context. Paul’s letters are historical documents. They arise out of the actual events of his ministry and of the actual circumstances of those fledgling churches he had established. We read of the establishment of this church in Acts 17:1-9 and it will help you to turn that up while we consider that history. And it is important to know the events reported there.
On his first missionary journey Paul had travelled from Antioch through Cyprus and Galatia, what is now south central Turkey. After returning to Antioch to make a report, he had, in the company of Silas his assistant, embarked on another trip which had taken him again to Galatia, to visit the infant churches established on his first visit, and then westward toward Ephesus. But, as we read in Acts 16:6 they were prevented by the Spirit from preaching there and eventually found themselves in the coastal town of Troas where Paul had his vision of a man from Macedonia begging him “Come over and help us.” So, now in the company of Luke as well who had joined Paul and Silas at Troas, across the Aegean Sea they sailed and came to Philippi.
They had wonderful adventures there and, by God’s grace people were saved and a Christian church was formed. Asked to leave the city of Philippi by the local authorities, Paul and Silas, leaving Luke behind to work with the new church, made their way further westward along the great Roman road known as the Egnatian Way to the larger and more important city of Thessalonica, a beautiful city overlooking the sea, a city of prosperous merchants and traders.
Philippi had only a small Jewish population and so no synagogue, only a place of prayer by the river where, you remember, Lydia first heard Paul and became a follower of Christ. Thessalonica, however, had a synagogue and, as was Paul’s custom, he always began his evangelism with the Jews. The Gospel, as he wrote in Romans 1:16, was for the Jew first and then for the Gentile. Perhaps by this time he did not expect to win many Jewish converts — the scandal of a crucified Messiah closed the ears of most of them to the Gospel — but around any synagogue of Jews there was usually gathered in those days a circle of devout, enlightened Gentiles, in various stages of Jewish proselytism, weary of paganism and heathen philosophy, more or less instructed in the Old Testament, and not yet, by pride of religious belief and custom, prejudiced against the report of Jesus the Messiah as were the Jews themselves. These spiritually interested Gentiles were called “God-fearers.” Cornelius the centurion in Caesarea, of whose conversion we read in Acts 10, was one. So was Lydia, and so, apparently were many if not most of Paul’s converts in this early stage of the Gentile mission.
Among these God-fearers, especially in the larger cities, were regularly a number of the more refined, intelligent, and influential Greek women of the Upper Classes and many of his converts came from this group as we know from the evidence of both Acts and the Epistles.
And so we read in Acts 17:4 that, after three weeks of public ministry in the synagogue — remember Paul as a Jewish male and as a visiting theologian would be given the opportunity to address the assembly — “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.”
But most of the Jews did not believe and after three weeks the synagogue was closed against Paul and his preaching. In all likelihood they continued in the city some while longer, gaining converts and organizing the new church. But, as often happened, the Apostle’s success at the expense of the synagogue aroused the jealousy of the Jews. They in turn aroused a mob to start a riot that they could steer against Paul and his followers. In any city there are plenty of folk who can be stirred up to riot at almost a moment’s notice and for any reason and a riot will get the attention of the authorities and cover one’s own tracks as nothing else can. Criminal actions are almost never punished when they are part of a general riot. As is the case today!
The rioters were directed to the house of Jason, a wealthy Jew who had accepted the faith of Christ and had invited the missionaries to lodge in his house. Not finding Paul or Silas there at the time, they dragged Jason and some other Christians out of his home and took him to the local judge, accused them of fomenting revolution and rebellion against Rome — bald face lies — and demanded their punishment.
The charges obviously enough alarmed the city fathers, but just as obviously they were untrue, and so the accused were not arrested, as Paul and Silas had been in Philippi, but were released on bond, a security for good behavior or perhaps security for a pledge on Jason’s part to see that Paul left the city and did not return.
In any case, fearing more the fury of the Jews than the city government, the believers set Paul and his fellow travellers away that very night to Berea, the next city down the road.
So it was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ came to the city of Thessalonica and a church was formed.
Now in Acts we receive thrilling accounts of the exploits of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. We are carried quickly from place to place and told something of the crucial incidents which figured in the founding of the various churches. But we see little there of the churches themselves or the people who formed them. And what came of them, brand new believers as they all were, novices in the Christian faith as they all were, after Paul left?
Happily the epistles give us at least some of that information lacking in Acts.
As it happened, Paul had not been gone very long from Thessalonica when he wrote this first letter back to the infant church there. In 1 Thess. 2:17 he writes, not as the NIV rather unclearly has it “when we were torn away from you for a short time” but rather “when we had been separated from you a short time” (literally “the season of an hour”) we made every effort to see you… But he could not, for various reasons make his way straight back to Thessalonica. He was then in Athens and so, instead of coming himself, sent Timothy to encourage them and to bring Paul back a report. (1 Thess. 3:1-3). By the time Timothy returned to Paul, the Apostle had moved on to Corinth. This we learn from Acts 18:5. And it was Timothy’s report of the state of affairs in the church in Thessalonica that prompted Paul to write the church there a letter, the letter we know as First Thessalonians. (1 Thess. 3:6). The elapsed time between Paul’s departure from Thessalonica and his writing to the church there cannot have been very long, perhaps only a matter of several months.
Think of it. No wonder Paul would be worried, as he says he was in 3:5! What would become of a church so young, so new, with such fierce opposition already risen against it? No Christians of any spiritual age or maturity. No one to teach the new believers; no one to answer the perplexing questions that any new convert has who begins reading the Bible with new eyes.
But, as a matter of fact, the report Timothy brought was, in the main, a matter of great relief to Paul. It was a gospel, full of good news as he says in 3:6. The Thessalonians were standing fast, their faith had endured the fire of persecution, their love for Christ and his servant Paul was unabated. What teaching they had received from Paul of the Christian way of life they had followed so faithfully that they had gained a great reputation among the other Christians in Macedonia. Indeed, as Paul says in 3:9-10, the news Timothy brought back from Thessalonica had the effect of only making him want to see them face to face again all the more.
“How can we thank God enough for you in
return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?”
There is not anywhere else in Paul’s many letters to churches, so unqualified a commendation and appreciation as he extends to the Thessalonian church. It was this spirit and tone of the letter that prompted the great commentator Albert Bengel to write: “There is a kind of unmingled sweetness in this epistle.”
His first purpose in writing the letter was then to tell them how pleased he was at what he had heard from Timothy and to express his great desire to see them again.
But, he had heard other things from Timothy as well. His reputation had been attacked after his departure from Thessalonica, almost certainly by the Jews who had opposed him when he was there. They had insinuated to the Christians — remember many of them had been either members of the Jewish synagogue or God-fearing Gentiles associated with it only a few months before, there were probably many among the Christians who were related to folk who remained in the synagogue and, so, continued to see them — that Paul was a coward and that he was making converts for his own selfish ends, that he was in it for the money, the reputation, and so on. “He got what he wanted from you gullible folks and he skipped town and you’ll never see him again.” That is what they were saying to the Christians.
Chapter 2 is Paul’s reply to innuendos of that kind and a defense of his ministry among them as a faithful ministry of Christ. Timothy’s report had relieved him on this score — his reputation had not been poisoned, the Christians continued to think wonderfully well of Paul — but it was still important, he thought, to reply to the charges that had been made and, especially, to explain why he had not been back sooner.
Further, the letter afforded him an opportunity to continue the instruction of his converts, to begin, as he says in 3:10, “to supply what is lacking in your faith.” Timothy would have told Paul of areas of misunderstanding or confusion that should be addressed.
There were certain areas of ethical concern: chastity, for example, was a problem in many Gentile churches early on because it was a virtue so completely lacking in Greek urban life of that time; brotherly love and hard work also needed stress. And on the doctrinal side there was confusion about the Lord’s return, especially the question of those believers who died before Christ’s second coming. Timothy had been unable to settle their minds on the point and he had detected an over-curiosity in their conjectures about the end of the age that was proving a real distraction from their present concentration on the life of faith.
And so we have the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, perhaps only the second book of the New Testament to be written, after Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It gives us a sense of those wonderful days when the Gospel was making its first way out into the world and when churches were being created out of nothing, every one of their members Christians of but a day. It was a desperate time, a wonderful time, a confusing and disappointing time, and a time of triumph.
Listen to this from James Stalker [Life of St. Paul, p. 131]:
“It is not for a pattern of the machinery of a church we ought to go back to this early time, but for a spectacle of fresh and transforming spiritual power. This is what will always attract to the Apostolic Age the longing eyes of Christians; the power of the Spirit was energizing in every member, the tides of fresh emotion swelled in every breast, and all felt that the dayspring of a new revelation had visited them; life, love, light were diffusing themselves everywhere. Even the vices of the young church were the irregularities of abundant life, for the lack of which the lifeless order of many a subsequent generation has been a poor compensation.”
And it is for this that we should be looking ourselves as we study this letter in coming weeks: that freshness, that vitality of Christian faith, life, and love. We need that, brothers and sisters, we surely do; and the world needs for us to have it. For that new life that awakened those early Christians, that strengthened them in the face of fierce opposition, and that transformed their city and, eventually, their culture, is the same life that beats in our hearts today, if we are Christians as they were. That is the glory of the Bible: in speaking to those Christians long ago in Thessalonica, Paul and the Holy Spirit are speaking to us today. And because the realities of the spiritual world do not change, the grace of God, the sinfulness of man, and the life of the Holy Spirit within Christians, what Paul had to say to them so long ago, is exactly what we need to hear today.
Churches are like people: they can be healthy or sick, strong or weak, hard-working or lazy, sweet or bitter, beautiful or unattractive. Some of the other of Paul’s letters tell us how churches can sink into sins of various kinds and lose their love and zeal. This letter, however, tells us of spiritual health, vitality, and strength, and how to keep it.
We here in Faith Presbyterian Church of Tacoma Washington, then, need to read and to hear this letter as if it had come to us in this morning’s mail. And if we heed all that the great Apostle teaches us; if we genuinely seek the Lord’s writing this letter upon the heart of our life together in this congregation, then it will come to pass that our work produced by faith, our labor prompted by love, and our endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ will be the cause of thanksgiving in heaven and on earth as it was in the case of the Thessalonians.
The spiritual world we live in is precisely the same world they lived in. The Holy Spirit who animated their faith and love is with us today and has not changed. The Word of God directs our steps in the very same paths that our ancient brethren walked. The same Christ calls us heavenward, the same hope lies before us, the same life courses within us. And those brethren, now long since in heaven, now surround us as a great cloud of witnesses, urging us on in the race they ran so well.
Far down the ages now,
Much of her journey done,
The pilgrim church pursues her way
Until her crown be won;
The story of the past
Comes up before her view;
How well it seems to suit her still —
Old, yet ever new!
‘Tis the repeated tale
Of sin and weariness;
Of grace and love yet flowing down
To pardon and to bless:
No wider is the gate,
No broader is the way,
No smoother is the ancient path
That leads to light and day.
Thus onward still we press,
Through evil and through good;
Through pain and poverty and want,
Through peril and through blood:
Still faithful to our God,
And to our Captain true,
We follow where He leads the way,
The kingdom in our view.