New European Commentary

 

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Deeper Commentary

CHAPTER 1

1:1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace- Paul and Silas were only "three Sabbath days" in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). As many would have been working during the week, and Paul would not have been the only teacher in the synagogue, those baptized there would have had only a few hours instruction in the Gospel. It's not surprising that Paul had to now write to them about apparently basic things such as the Lord's coming and the resurrection. They were really "in God" and in Christ- Paul didn't want them to think that they had merely shown passing interest in some itinerant preacher. It was all for real.

1:2 We give thanks to God always for you all- The Old Testament as well as New is written in such a way as to encourage memorization, although this is often masked by the translation. There are several devices commonly used to assist in this. Not least is alliteration, i.e. similarly sounding syllables, and we have an example here: Pantote Peri Panton (1 Thess. 1:2);  Polymeros kai polytropos (Heb. 1:1); hautee protee entolee (Mk. 12:30); aphtharton amianton amaranton (1 Pet. 1:3,4).

Making mention of you in our prayers- This means more than just 'mentioning'. To mention before God is a Hebraism referring to actually having real effect upon God's view of the person or situation, just as might make positive mention of someone to a superior. Whilst the Lord Jesus is our only mediator, it is also that because we in Him, we can have influence upon God in regard to others; He is so open to our prayers.

1:3 Remembering without ceasing before our God and Father your work of faith, labour of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ- "Remembering" is a similar word to "making mention" in :2 (see note there). Paul brought to God's attention, as it were, their faith, hope and love. And we must ask ourselves, as to how much of our prayer time is taken up with telling God the good things about others? Paul says he did this "without ceasing". Quite a challenge to our prayer life, which so easily tends towards selfishness. "Labour of love" is literally 'toil', and is elsewhere translated "trouble" or "weariness". Loving others results in just this- weariness and trouble. But that is what love is about in practice. "Hope" refers not to a hoping for the best, but a solid expectation- in this case, of salvation, because we are in Christ. That hope was 'patient' or enduring; our tendency is to be persuaded of our salvation for a moment and then drift into the mire of mediocrity in that we lose that intensity of vision and expectation. But patient or enduring hope means life lived in the constant belief that we shall be saved. Paul commends them for this- and yet has to explain to them later that those of them who had recently died were not lost, but would be resurrected at the Lord's return. The Thessalonians therefore had a basic faith, that there was hope in Christ, and they endured in that faith; but their understanding of what that hope was remained clearly very hazy. But all the same, Paul commended them in his prayers before God for believing and having the sure hope. So whilst faith must have content, we believe in something, it is also true that basic faith in Jesus is acceptable even if we have details wrong as regards how it shall all work out in practice.

Note how many times Paul gives thanks for the spiritual progress he sees in others, even though we can be sure he saw clearly enough the spiritual immaturity which there still must have been in his converts. So many times he thanks God in his prayers for what he has seen in others (Rom. 1:8-10; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; 9:12-15; Eph. 1:3-23; Phil. 1:3-6; Col. 1:3-14; 1 Thess. 1:2,3; 2:13-16; 3:9; 2 Thess. 1:3-10; 2 Tim. 1:3-7; Philemon 4-7). Now it follows that if we are to pray like Paul, we must have the heart of love for people that was in him. So often we dwell upon the negative, the scandals, the failures of others. And we can't thank God for those things. Paul's pattern of prayer was of positive praise. And we can only share that if we have a mind that is positively perceptive of signs of response to grace in others.

Their "work of faith" recalls how James argues that there is no essential difference between faith and works. 'Faith' is not just credulity or a vague feeling of hope, but an active, driving force. There is "the work of faith" (1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11); faith is something which ought to be 'done', the Lord taught (Mt. 23:23). Knowledge and faith are paralleled in John's thought (Jn. 8:32 cp. 14:1; and 6:69 cp. 11:27)- in stark contrast to this world's emphasis upon works rather than faith. Hence Isaiah's appeals to know and believe Yahweh (43:10); and the Lord's parallel of 'little faith' with little understanding (Mt. 16:7,8). Pistis, one of the NT words for 'faith', is translated in the LXX as both 'faith' (e.g. Dt. 32:20; Prov. 12:22) and 'truth' (Prov. 12:17; 14:22; Jer. 5:1). Indeed, another word used in the LXX is 119 times translated 'truth' and 26 times 'faith'. There is a connection between true knowledge of the Gospel and faith. And this faith is the basis for our works. We don't just learn the propositions of the one faith before baptism, and forget them. The triumphant spiritual life lives them out.

We note that their "hope" is praised here, but they were seriously deficient in understanding what that hope was in detail, apparently not understanding much about the resurrection. Yet Paul perceived their faith in Christ and firm expectation ["hope"] of salvation in Him, and praises them for it- even if they were astray or ignorant in their understanding of how it would work out in practice. See on 4:13. We can only conclude that not understanding the details of our future hope does not mean we do not have a valid faith in Christ, nor does it hinder the validity of a baptism. But like Paul, we are to seek to fill in the gaps which believers have in their knowledge of these things.

1:4 Knowing, brothers beloved of God, your first calling- Paul was sure they had been called because he had preached the Gospel to them (:5). The call is therefore in the Gospel. Those who hear the Gospel are called; those who have been invited to Christ cannot ever claim they were not invited or not called. Paul doesn't want them to be in any doubt about their calling- he wanted them to 'know' it. And yet Paul is so positive about these rather weak Thessalonians when talking to God about them; see on :3. The Lord's mediation for us is similar.


1:5- see on Gal. 1:6.

How that our preaching of the gospel came not to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit- As noted on :4, this preaching of the Gospel was the proof that they had indeed been called to the Kingdom; and they should not stop 'knowing' that they were called. The word they had heard had been backed up by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no record of any miracles being performed to back up Paul's preaching in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10). The confirmation of belief was in the gift of the power of the Spirit in the hearts of all believers after baptism. It was and is not simply accepting a word preached; that word is confirmed by the action of the Spirit. The "power" given can refer to miracles, but there is no record of them in Acts 17; I suggest the reference is therefore to the power of the Spirit within us; the parable of the talents uses the same word, translated "ability", regarding the gifts given to each believer (Mt. 25:15). It is the gift of the power of the Spirit which enables us to abound in joy, hope and peace- all internal attributes (Rom. 15:13). This is the "power" (s.w.) with which we are strengthened by the gift of "the Spirit in the inner man" (Eph. 3:16). This is why Paul assures them that he can thank God for their faith, love and patience (:3); because they were given these things by the work of the Spirit.

And in much assurance- See on Jn. 15:26. As noted above, this could also refer to the gift of the Spirit in their hearts which was an assurance of their future salvation (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). The riches of full assurance (Col. 2:2) are the same riches given by the gift of the Spirit in our hearts (Eph. 3:16-18). But we can be given the Spirit gift, and yet not be spiritual (1 Cor. 3:1). We must allow the work of the Spirit within us, and believe it.

There was a confidence exuding from the early preachers that they had arrived at Truth. They ‘had the Truth’ in that what they knew and had experienced was enough for salvation. Unlike the surrounding philosophies and religions, they knew whom they had believed; they weren’t going somewhere in vague hope, they had arrived. They had something concrete to offer others. They preached from a basis of personal hope and conviction and experience, quite unlike the more ‘political’ methods other religions used to recruit members. The philosophers and teachers of the 1st century had little conviction about the value or truth of their position. But the Truth came “not only in word but also in power… and with full conviction (Gk. plerophoria)” (1 Thess. 1:5). This conviction was not mere dogmatism and self-belief; and likewise our witness must carry with it a “full conviction” that contrasts with the uncertainty about faith, hope etc. which many professing ‘believers’ of other faiths reveal when they are probed in any depth about their positions. Paul preached the seriousness of the issues which there are in the Gospel; and yet people flocked back to hear more (Acts 13:41). The preaching of truth involves the message of something being exclusive, and compellingly so. In the first century, “no pagan cult was exclusive of any other and the only restriction on initiation into many cults was the expense”.

Even as you know what manner of men we have shown ourselves toward you, for your sake- Paul realized he was "a Christ appointed model" (RR); see on 1 Tim. 1:15. And so he framed his life in such a way as it could be usefully imitated, showing himself a pattern "for your sake". There is a fine line between this and posturing / hypocrisy. Paul was only with them for "three Sabbath days" (Acts 17:2), he had only a few contact hours with many of them. The greatest Christian instruction he could give them was himself. And they imitated him (:6). As many would have been illiterate, the word of the Gospel and of Jesus had to be made flesh, modelled, so that they could follow the pattern. This is not the same as the endless 'Let me tell you about myself' sermons which clutter Christianity today. To be a Christian is to be Christ centered, and Paul realized this; for he goes on to say that their imitation of him was therefore also of the Lord Jesus (:6). He wrote the same to the Corinthians: "Be followers of me even as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). He was to imitated only insofar as he was an image of the Lord.

1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord-  See on :5. The idea of consciously modelling, of having some characters as your heroes, your inspiration towards a closer following of God, was very much in Paul's thinking. Not only does he do it himself, but he encourages others to do it. He doesn't use the word 'modelling'; he uses the word 'mimicking', Greek mimicos, normally translated "follow" in the AV. This Greek word is used almost exclusively by Paul. "You became followers of us and of the Lord.... you know how you ought to follow us... an ensample unto you to follow us" (1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7,9; the implication is that in the gap between 1 and 2 Thessalonians, they stopped following Paul as they initially did straight after his conversion of them).

We all have more influence on each other than we may think. Quite naturally, the Thessalonians imitated the ecclesias of Judaea and also Paul personally (1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14). And in turn, they became models to all the believers in Macedonia (1 Thess. 1:7). Leadership is essentially a process of influence, rather than a brother standing up and lecturing others. But the Lord used images such as salt, yeast and light to describe all who are in Him. They speak of indirect, constant, transforming influence rather than a frontal assault on the unspirituality of others.

Paul explains to the Thessalonians that he has consciously lived life before them in order to provide them with a template to copy; and their copying of that template in turn became a pattern to those within their circle of contact to emulate. In this we see the power of example, especially in the preaching of the Gospel: "You know what kind of men we were among you for your sake (i.e. Paul consciously lived as an example to them). And you became followers of us... so that you became examples to all in Macedonia... so that we do not need to say anything [because those who had copied Paul's example were effectively his voice to others]... for they [the converts of the Thessalonians, not Paul] themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you [i.e. the converts of the Thessalonians were a reflection of Paul's conversion of the Thessalonians]... you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judaea" (1 Thess. 1:6-9; 2:14). This last comment suggests that in imitating Paul, the Thessalonians were imitating the ecclesias in Judaea- perhaps indicating that it was those ecclesias who had initially influenced Paul and been his pattern, and now he was a pattern to the Thessalonians, and they in turn were a pattern to their converts in Macedonia.

Having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit- At the point of conversion and baptism, they received joy on account of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rom. 5:5 speaks of love too being shed forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us. The outpouring of the Spirit is not only at baptism; we continue to be given it if we are open to it. Hence at Acts 13:52 "the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit", and Paul prays that the Roman believers would be "filled with joy... through the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 15:13). Life in Christ now is about "joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). One of the fruits brought forth by the Spirit in us is joy (Gal. 5:22).

1:7 In this way you became an example to all in Macedonia and in Achaia that believe- See on :6. The example of the early Christians, especially their deportment under persecution and even death, was what converted others. The Thessalonians were convinced that what Paul taught them was not the word of men but the word of God, because of who Paul was: his life, his self-sacrifice, his caring, convinced them (1 Thess. 2:1-14). Paul speaks of how they had become examples to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia; and yet he also notes in the same context how the Gospel has been spread throughout those very same regions, Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess. 1:7,8). Their example was associated with the acceptance of the message. Their faith had “gone forth” and so thereby had the word of the Lord “sounded forth” (:8 RV).

1:8- see on Acts 2:46.

For from you has sounded out the word of the Lord, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place your faith toward God has gone forth; so that we do not need to say anything about you- See on :7. Their following of Paul (:5,6) appears to specifically be a reference to their obedience to the great preaching commission: as if Paul is saying: 'Well done for realizing that the great commission which some of us received specifically, does in fact apply to you too!': "You became imitators of us... for not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere". We see from this verse the network of communication which there was amongst the early churches. We read in Col. 4:8 of Tychicus being sent specifically from Rome to Colosse 'just' to share news of how Paul was faring in prison; and there were a whole group of "messengers of the churches" (2 Cor. 8:23). Communication was so important within a community which knew itself to be the body of Christ on earth, existent in order to build one another up. And yet with all our ease of communication, so little real communication goes on within the body of Christ relative to the ease of it. Communication then was a real sacrifice, and yet messengers scurried around the Mediterranean basin, in an age when most people never travelled more than 50 km. from their birthplace. And so the faith of those in Thessalonica, who had heard Paul preaching Christ for only three Sabbath days, spread far and wide.

1:9 For others report about what kind of reception you gave us and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God- See on :8. The record in Acts 17 says that Paul preached for three Sabbath days in the synagogue; and yet this verse envisages the Thessalonians as having been previously idol worshippers, and 2:14 states that the readership were Gentiles. Perhaps Paul preached to Gentiles too, although Acts 17 doesn't record it states that in addition to some Jews, a large group of "religious Gentiles" also responded. We would assume from Acts 17:4 that these were proselytes, or at best the religiously curious who also attended synagogue services. In this case we find great encouragement in our witness; for it can be discouraging to keep meeting people who are religious on a hobbyist level, but who seem unable to come to firm faith in the one true God. These were, it seems, the types Paul converted at Thessalonica, attending the synagogue as well as worshipping idols. Confronted with the truth of the Lord Jesus, they realized that the days of having religion as a hobby were over; this was the truth, and they believed it. They perceived that they were called to actually serve this living God; that He was not just an idea, a theology which they could approve, but a real, live Being who called them not only to intellectually assent to Him, but to actually serve Him. The Lord's parable spoke of all believers being given unique talents, and leaving, as it were, the baptismal waters to go out and use them for Him. This call to service, rather than mere academic assent, is lacking in much of our witness.

1:10- see on Mt. 3:7.

And to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come- On one hand we are serving God in practice (:9), on the other, we are waiting for the Lord's return. The usage of "Jesus" without any title, such as "Lord" or "Christ", is unusual. "Jesus" was a very common Jewish name at the time. Yet Paul baldly uses it, in purposeful juxtaposition with the fact He is God's Son, raised from the dead, who shall return. Yet Paul along with that emphasizes His utter humanity, having a name as common as Dave or Steve in the Anglo Saxon world. "The wrath to come" may refer to the time of trouble of the last days which Paul clearly expected to come upon that generation; they should not fear it, because it was to be the sign the Lord's return was imminent. He may well be alluding to the prediction that God's true Israel would be delivered by "Michael" from the time of trouble of the last days (Dan. 12:1). Paul considered both Jewish and Gentile Christians to be part of that new people of God.