This is not a sermon; this is my preliminary thoughts on the passage I hope to preach on this coming Sunday. I post them here in case they are helpful to others too.
The founding of the Thessalonian church is recorded in Acts 17.1-9. There we read that Paul and Silas, fresh from their experience in the Philippian jail, had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and arrived at Thessalonica, ‘where there was a synagogue of the Jews’. Paul went there as was his custom, and for three successive Sabbaths he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise on the third day, and asserting that Jesus is in fact the foretold Messiah. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, and so did a large number of ‘devout Greeks’ (i.e. ‘God fearers’?), including some prominent women in the community.
But the other Jews became jealous of Paul & Silas’ success (no doubt they themselves would have claimed loftier motives!), and they formed a mob; they couldn’t find Paul and Silas, so they attacked Jason’s house, where the apostles had been staying, and dragged Jason and some of the other brothers before the city council; they accused them of ‘acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying there is another king named Jesus’ (which gives us a good insight into what the apostles’ message actually was – a proclamation of the ultimate Lordship of Jesus). So that very night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas away to Beroea.
So what we can say for sure is that their ministry in Thessalonica was very short, perhaps as short as three weeks. It was enough, however, to plant a self-governing and self-supporting church based on the message of Jesus as King and Messiah.
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
This is a standard Greek-style greeting, but Paul has modified it by adding distinctly Christian elements. The Thessalonians might see themselves as ‘the ekklesia (‘assembly’) of the Christians in Thessalonica’, and they would be right; their geographical location is indeed in Thessalonica, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia. But they have a primary location which is even more important: they are ‘the ekklesia of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘In’ is not just a location, but an experiential connection; yes, they are Thessalonians, connected by history and culture to their race and people, but more importantly, they are Christians, connected by grace to God the Father and his Son Jesus the Messiah, God’s anointed King. This is in fact their primary identity now.
Greek letter writers wished their hearers ‘eirene’ (‘peace’), but Paul characteristically adds ‘charis’ (‘grace’) first. This is God’s unconditional love, which could not be bought or earned, but is poured out on us as a free gift through Jesus and his death and resurrection: this is the greatest experience that Paul can wish for his Thessalonian friends, that they would know themselves to be loved unconditionally by a God who gave himself for them on the cross. And the result is ‘peace’ with God and with others.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here is possibly the first time that Paul uses his familiar triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’, or, in this case, ‘faith, love, and hope’. One assumes that, in planting churches which are going to need to be self-supporting and self-governing, in an illiterate age when very few people would be able to read the Jewish scriptures or any rudimentary written records that the apostles might leave with them, Paul has given some thought to developing memorable summaries of Christian essentials for his new disciples to memorize and practice. This is one of them – the so called ‘three theological virtues’.
Faith is first – it means, to Paul, both believing the promises that God has made and trusting in the God who made the promises. In Galatians (written probably either shortly before or shortly after this letter) he pays a lot of attention to the idea of faith as ‘believing what you heard’, but we know that this is not just intellectual assent but also a life-changing commitment. If I believe what my doctor is saying to me, I will put into practice the things she says. And so Paul talks in Galatians about ‘faith working itself out through love’, in Romans about ‘the obedience of faith’, and here in 1 Thessalonians about ‘your work of faith’. Faith and works, in other words, go together. In Mark 2:5 Jesus ‘saw the faith’ of the four friends by their action of bringing the paralyzed man to him for healing, and Peter demonstrated his faith by the action of getting out of the boat and walking on the water to Jesus (Matthew 14:29). So faith always shows itself in action – sometimes strenuous action – hence ‘your work of faith’.
Faith is directed toward God (or Christ), but the next theological virtue, love, is directed toward people: ‘your labour of love’. ‘Love’ here is ‘agapé’, so it is not a feeling but a way of life – sacrificial love – the love that does what is best for the other, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not – the love that Jesus shows when he washes his disciples’ feet, or when he dies for them on the cross. And so this also is an active virtue; it leads us to ‘labour’. In the early church, it often took the form of Christians sharing their possessions with one another, helping those among them who were poor, bearing one another’s burdens and so on. This is the love that causes people to rebuild barns that have burned down, visit the sick and the prisoners, care for lepers, work in AIDS clinics, take meals for those who are sick, and generally serve others in the name of Christ.
The third theological virtue is hope: your ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. If faith is directed toward God and love to one another, hope is directed to the promise of the future, when the Lordship of Jesus Christ will be revealed to all. At the moment it is hidden, known only to those who believe in him and follow him, but this state of affairs is only temporary. So these Christians can be ‘steadfast’ in the persecutions they are experiencing right now, because they believe God’s promise about the shape of the future. They also believe God’s promise about their own future: whatever happens to them, they are safe in Jesus (Paul will expound on this a little more in 4:13 – 5:12).
4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
The rest of the passage focuses on the Thessalonians’ experience of conversion, which was fresh in their minds and Paul’s mind too. What is the essence of conversion according to Paul? Well, the essentials are at the end of the passage: to become a Christian is to ‘turn to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’.
This is a very Jewish message; Isaiah would probably have cheered for it! The whole of Isaiah 40-55 resonates with the idea that Yahweh the God of Israel is the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, who was not made by human hands like false gods of wood or stone. His is higher than us, his thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and we cannot possibly understand him unless he reveals himself to us. So true conversion is to turn from anything less than this – a lesser god than the creator of all, a more tangible god than the invisible Lord of the universe – and to put our faith in the one ‘living and true God’.
Idols, of course, were everywhere in Thessalonica; the city would have been full of temples to Greek and Roman gods; the trade guilds would have had their meetings there, the meat in the marketplace would have been offered in sacrifice to the gods, and civic occasions would have begun with acts of worship to the gods. So for Christians to throw away their idols would have been tantamount to modern Christians throwing away their computers and smartphones – most people would not have been able to conceive of life without them. This was a real act of faith on the part of the new Christians: to give up tangible gods they could see and handle, and instead to worship an invisible God who has been revealed in a person they have never met: Jesus.
So for us contemporary Christians, conversion means turning away from the false gods of our own day: money and the things it can buy, success, sexual prowess, youth, nationalism, the good opinion of our contemporaries, and the many other idols that tempt us – the things we turn to for help when the chips are down. Whatever it is that we put at the centre of our lives other than the true and living God, conversion means removing that false god from God’s throne, and turning resolutely to the one true God who Jesus has revealed to us.
‘The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee’ (William Cowper).
The false gods do not satisfy, because they can’t deliver what they promise. However the subtle thing here is that Jesus does not satisfy immediately either, because at present his kingdom is still in conflict with the kingdoms of the world, who do not recognize his lordship. So Christian faith is future-oriented; we’re not only to ‘turn’ but also to ‘wait’ – ‘to wait for his Son from heaven’ (10a). As Bono sings, ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ – I’ve grasped it in Jesus, but I haven’t experienced it fully yet, and so I wait for the day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.
This is conversion. Now – how did this happen? Well, Paul says, it wasn’t just as a result of evangelical razzmatazz – a clever preacher putting on a good show. No – ‘our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’ (v.5a). How does Paul know this? He knows it because of the miracle of conversion: these people who had been raised and steeped in idolatry have turned their back on all that they have known and loved, and instead embraced an invisible God and a Messiah they have not seen, and even though their conversion led to their being persecuted, they were still full of joy in their new faith. This is not ultimately explainable by human effort, Paul says; it can only be attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit.
And so, Paul says, ‘you became imitators of us and of the Lord’ (v.6). The primary imitation, of course, is of Jesus, but once again, the new converts know little of Jesus and they can’t seen him. They can, however, see the evangelist who is sharing the gospel with them, and they can see the sort of life he or she lives. And so it is very important that the evangelist truly models their life on the teaching and example of Jesus. The evangelist is an acted parable of Jesus Christ to his or her converts, making visible and tangible the sort of life that Jesus lived and calls us to live. So we who are in Christian ministry need to make sure that our way of life communicates the reality of Jesus, and not just our words. This is how new Christians grow – not primarily by attending classes, but by watching the discipleship of older Christians, and by imitating it.
This is the miracle of conversion – people who were steeped in idolatry have turned away from it, and have chosen instead to worship the one true God revealed to us in Jesus, and to wait for the coming of his Kingdom rather than putting their hope in the tangible blessings promised by false gods. They have received this word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; they have devoted themselves to imitating Christ, and they are learning the way of faith, love, and hope. And this story has been told elsewhere; people in Macedonia and Achaia have heard this story of conversion and have been inspired by it. And this has made Paul’s job easier; when he preaches about Jesus, people know what happens when someone becomes a follower of Jesus: ‘You know, just like those people in Thessalonica!’
Okay, time to look at what the commentaries have to say…