This is the first of Paul’s letters in all of Scripture. (Some would argue that Galatians is the first. In fact, in my earlier blog I say as much. I changed my mind, this one is earlier). Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica was written around 51 AD so it would have been when most of Jesus’ disciples could still have been around. Remember, Paul wrote most of the New Testament, so it is significant when we say this is his first letter. You may have thought that Paul’s letters were arranged in chronological order. No, that is not the case, if it were so then Romans would have been one of the first written. Instead, we know that Romans was one of the last and written while Paul was in prison.
So what do we know about the Christian church in Thessalonica. We know that Paul started the church. Go ahead and read Acts 17:1-9. We find there that for three weeks (three successive Sabbath days) Paul was arguing in the synagogue that Jesus was the messiah. Can you imagine that? Just think if for three successive Sundays we had someone come into our church and argue that this man who was killed as a state criminal was actually, in fact, the messiah. I’m not sure we would give that person much time, nor should we. But Paul persisted for three weeks.
Still in Acts 17:1-9 we read that some actually believed and followed Paul and that eventually Paul was kicked out of the city because he was accused of rebel rousing. From there he left the city. We don’t read that he ever returned again. That is the setting of his work in Thessalonica and it is thought that he wrote his letter to them from Corinth shortly after his escape from their city. You can look at Acts 18 and see that he goes to Corinth afterward.
So here is Paul writing to a fledgling community who only had a chance to hear from their founder for less than a month before he has to escape. They are left in this city by themselves trying to figure out how they survive and how do they live this Christian life. It is no surprise that Paul’s theme for this letter is the second coming of Jesus. He tells them to hang on because Jesus is coming back. A fancy term for this is eschatology. Eschatology is the belief that Jesus is coming back. The debate around eschatology is exactly when is Jesus coming back. We simply don’t know, and Paul will tell us this later on.
Now to the meat of the first chapter. It is important to know the background to the letter, but let’s look at the first chapter. Paul begins with a normal greeting to the church. Well, normal at least, for a church that he likes and of which he is proud. Not like I Corinthians where he consistently chastises them for their way of life and their bad theology. No, here instead, we read of: “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now that is a great healthy church. But they need help, they are still trying to figure things out on their own.
But he especially commends them for their witness and their willingness to reach out to others with the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that they would turn from their idols and follow the only one true God, Jesus Christ.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were missionaries in what was the Belgian Congo. They had some amazing stories of God’s love and God’s miracles in their work. If you want to read more about their life my grandmother wrote a book and I can lend you a copy or you can pick one up at:
But one of the stories is about my grandfather who was sent to a village which had never had exposure to the Christian message. He befriended the chief of the village and told him he would be back in about a year. It was far away and there were many villages that my grandfather had to oversee. The chief asked if he could send a missionary or someone else to help them and teach them while he was gone. No, my grandfather said, there is no one. But I will be back. A year passed and my grandfather came back and the chief showed him the new church that they had built and asked if he had found someone to stay in the village to help them learn about Jesus better. My grandfather said no, but he would be back in a year. The chief turned to him and said, I hope I am still living, for if I do not live then I am not sure this village will believe your words about Jesus. I believe, but without someone to teach us I am not sure they will continue to believe.
A year later my grandfather returned. The first thing he noticed was that the church was torn down and in its place were the village idols. The chief had died. The villagers allowed him to stay for one night but then made it clear that he was not welcome. Every time my grandmother or my mother would tell that story they would have a hard time getting through it recognizing the potential that was lost because there are not enough workers in the field.
The people of Thessalonica were left on their own to try to fend for themselves theologically. They survived.