1 From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you! 2 We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers, 3 because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction. 7 As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For from you the message of the Lord has echoed forth not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place reports of your faith in God have spread, so that we do not need to say anything. 9 For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10).1
We know from Acts 16 and 17 that neither Paul’s entrance to Thessalonica nor his exit from it were ideal. He came to Thessalonica from Philippi, after having been illegally beaten and cast into prison,2 and later he was forced to leave the city in the cover of darkness due to the false charges brought against him by some of the rabble of the city, as prompted by some of the unbelieving Jews of Thessalonica.3 Unbeknownst to the Thessalonian saints, Paul had made several attempts to return to Thessalonica, but he had been hindered from doing so by Satan.4 It is clear from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that he is very concerned about this church and that he strongly desires to be with them once again.
Due to Paul’s absence, there may have been some concern on the part of the Thessalonian saints. They knew that Paul had been unjustly accused of wrong-doing and that he had been hastily run out of town. As time passed and there was no communication from Paul (until Timothy arrived), the Thessalonians must have begun to be concerned. Did Paul consider his ministry among them to be a failure? Would they ever see him again? How would they get along with their newly-found faith without him, or someone sent by him?
First Thessalonians is written to put the hearts and minds of the Thessalonian believers at rest. Paul was not only doing well, he had a great affection for them. He thought of them constantly and prayed persistently for them. He had made several efforts to return to them and was determined to return as soon as possible. More than this, Paul felt that his ministry among them was a great success. In the strongest of terms, he conveyed his confidence in their continued growth and ministry.
There have been many times when someone has called to inform us that a new baby was just born. Unfortunately, some of those times I answered the phone. When I passed on the information to my wife Jeannette, I must confess that the details were sketchy at best. Generally, I know the gender of the newborn and from that point on, things tend to go downhill quickly. Jeannette invariably presses me for more details: “How big was the baby?” Oops, I either forgot to ask or I forgot this detail. The same goes for other important details.
Luke’s account in Acts of the birth and health of the church at Thessalonica is lacking a great deal of detail. This is because it was not Luke’s purpose to tell us all we want to know about this church. His purpose was to describe the failure of Judaism to embrace Jesus as the Promised Messiah, thus paving the way for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles.5 If Luke’s description of Paul’s first visit to Thessalonica was terse, his account of Paul’s subsequent visit(s) is even more sketchy:
1 After the disturbance [at Ephesus] had ended, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left to go to Macedonia. 2 After he had gone through those regions and spoken many words of encouragement to the believers there, he came to Greece, 3 where he stayed for three months. Because the Jews had made a plot against him as he was intending to sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. 4 Paul was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, and Timothy, as well as Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia. 5 These had gone on ahead and were waiting for us in Troas. 6 We sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and within five days we came to the others in Troas, where we stayed for seven days (Acts 20:1-6).
This does not mean that we are left without any information regarding the church at Thessalonica. What it does mean is that we must get most of our information from Paul’s own words in his two epistles to the Thessalonians. When we compare Luke’s account of the birth of the church at Thessalonica with Paul’s words, we discover that we may have based too much of our thinking on inferences we draw from the short account in Acts 17, rather than from Paul’s words in his Thessalonian epistles. Let me outline several areas where our thinking about the church at Thessalonica may need to change.
First, we may need to revise our thinking regarding the amount of time Paul spent at Thessalonica on his first missionary journey. From Acts 17:2, we learn that Paul ministered at the synagogue in Thessalonica for three Sabbaths. This does not mean that Paul stayed at Thessalonica only three weeks and then had to leave suddenly. It simply means that Paul’s ministry at the synagogue was three weeks in length. Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 1:7-10 refer to the fact that word of the Thessalonians’ conversion had spread throughout Macedonia and Achaia and beyond. This could hardly take place if Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was only three weeks in length. Besides this, we read these words Paul wrote to the Philippian saints:
14 Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble. 15 And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16 For even in Thessalonica on more than one occasion you sent something for my need (Philippians 4:14-16).
How could the Philippian saints send a contribution to Paul while he was in Thessalonica if he was there only three weeks? A longer stay seems required.
Second, we may need to revise our thinking in regard to the composition of the church. Luke told us something about those who embraced Paul’s preaching in the synagogue:
Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women (Acts 17:4).
This information alone would lead us to expect that the church at Thessalonica had a significant number of members who were familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures because they were either converted Jews or Gentile God-fearers. And yet we read this in 1 Thessalonians 1:9:
For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9, emphasis mine).
This causes me to realize that a significant number of believers in Jesus at Thessalonica were not Jews, nor were they converted God-fearers. They were simply raw pagans that God drew to Himself through those who had been sent out with the gospel.
Third, we may need to revise our thinking regarding the source of the opposition the Thessalonian saints endured. From Acts 17 alone, we would conclude that the opposition the church faced came primarily from unbelieving Jews:
But the Jews became jealous, and gathering together some worthless men from the rabble in the marketplace, they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They attacked Jason’s house, trying to find Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly (Acts 17:5).
But when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul had also proclaimed the word of God in Berea, they came there too, inciting and disturbing the crowds (Acts 17:13).
When we read Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 2, we get a very different impression:
14 For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you too suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they in fact did from the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14, emphasis mine).
While unbelieving Jews resisted the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles, Gentile pagans also strongly opposed Paul and the preaching of the gospel. This was often due to economic factors.6 According to Paul, the persecution directed against the saints in Thessalonica came from “their own countrymen” (aka Gentiles), rather than from the Jews. Apart from divine election, the gospel is an offense to both Jews and Gentiles:
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:21-24).
Fourth, we may need to change our thinking regarding our assessment of Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians. On the basis of Luke’s account alone, we may be tempted to think of Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica as being more of a “pulpit ministry.”
2 Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ” (Acts 17:2-3).
Paul’s synagogue preaching appears to be ministry at “arm’s length,” rather than one that is “up close and personal.” But Luke’s words above are not intended to give us the whole picture. The “rest of the story” is found in Luke’s later description of Paul’s ministry in Athens and in Paul’s description of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians 2:
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols. 17 So he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, and in the marketplace every day those who happened to be there (Acts 17:16-17, emphasis mine).
7 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, 8 with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. 9 For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, as to how holy and righteous and blameless our conduct was toward you who believe. 11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his own children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you live in a way worthy of God who calls you to his own kingdom and his glory (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12, emphasis mine).
Now we have a more complete picture of Paul’s ministry. It was both to Jews (in the synagogue) and to raw pagans (in the marketplace). Thus, on the Sabbath, Paul was at the synagogue (so long as he was allowed to be there), while on the weekdays Paul was in the marketplaces, proclaiming Christ to the Gentile heathen, who had little or no grasp of the Old Testament and of its prophecies regarding Messiah. Synagogue ministry did not seem to offer the same opportunities for intimate interaction as did Paul’s engagement with unbelievers in the marketplaces. Remember, too, that Paul labored day and night so as not to be a burden to them:
For you recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery: By working night and day so as not to impose a burden on any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God (1 Thessalonians 2:9).
Paul lived and worked with those who came to faith in the Lord Jesus. He knew them well, just as they had come to know him. No wonder Paul speaks of his conduct among them as something they know well.7
Fifth, in spite all of the difficulties Paul and the Thessalonians experienced, Paul had great confidence in the survival and success of the church at Thessalonica. One might surely wonder how this church could survive with intense opposition from Jews and Gentiles, with such a short time of teaching and ministry by Paul and his associates, and with Paul’s prolonged absence from them. But these first chapters of 1 Thessalonians are filled with expressions of his love for these saints and of his confidence in what God was yet to do in their lives. How refreshing it is to study this epistle which contains little or no rebuke, a few words of caution and exhortation, and many words of love, affection, and confidence regarding the future.
1 From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you! 2 We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers, 3 because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:1-3).
Much could be said about these verses, as the commentaries attest, but we shall be content to make a few observations and then press on to the heart of our text. First, let us observe that the greeting (and the epistle) comes from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. Silvanus is consistently referred to as Silas in the Book of Acts. He is the prophet who, along with Judas (also known as Barsabbas8), was sent by the Jerusalem Council to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch, so that they could testify to the decision of the council regarding circumcision and salvation.
Here, as elsewhere, Paul ministered in the context of a team of godly men, each with their own gifts and contributions to make.9 Paul finds no need here to emphasize his apostleship or to indicate any superiority in rank to his colleagues.10 Apparently there is no need to assert his authority among these saints because there had not yet been any serious attempt to challenge his apostolic status.
It is not at all surprising to find Paul in prayer on account of the Thessalonian saints. It would seem that the primary focus of his prayers was thankfulness to God for the work He had begun in their lives. While Paul was absent from these beloved saints, he was constantly calling to mind the way these people had come to faith and all of the evidences of God’s work in their lives. These memories were converted to prayers of thanksgiving, and although it is not stated here, I would be virtually certain that there were also prayers of petition for their protection and growth.11
There is something unique about the way in which Paul addresses the church at Thessalonica. Usually, Paul will address the saints and churches in terms of where they live:
1 From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes, our brother, 2 to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:1-2, emphasis mine).
From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia (2 Corinthians 1:1, emphasis mine).
1 From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! (Philippians 1:1-2, emphasis mine)
1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 to the saints, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, at Colossae. Grace and peace to you from God our Father! (Colossians 1:1-2, emphasis mine)
When we come to Paul’s Thessalonian epistles, they both begin in a rather unique way:
From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you! (1 Thessalonians 1:1, emphasis mine)
From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:1, emphasis mine).
Two things catch my eye as I read these greetings. First, Paul emphasizes the fact that this church (which happens to be in Thessalonica) is united with God. Second, this union with God is specifically said to be with both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The theological truth of these words should come as no surprise to us:
4 “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing” (John 15:4-5).
20 “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, 21 that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one – 23 I in them and you in me – that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
We are all familiar with the first chapter of Ephesians, where Paul spells out all of the blessings that we have “in Christ.” Is it any wonder that he tells the Thessalonian saints that they, as a church, are in God the Father and in the Son? I think not. But wait, there’s more to it than this. The Thessalonian saints seem to need a good deal of encouragement (for that is what this first epistle is all about). Suppose that this was the church at Sodom or Samaria? There is a certain stigma linked to the church because of the less-than-sterling reputation of these cities. Paul’s choice of words focuses their attention on their true identity “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is who they really are, and this is the basis for Paul’s confidence in what God has done and will yet do in this church.
There is something else that is unique about Paul’s greeting – it is long, very long – three chapters long! Paul’s other greetings are not nearly so long, as we can see, for example, in Paul’s greeting to the Corinthians:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 4 I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus. 5 For you were made rich in every way in him, in all your speech and in every kind of knowledge – 6 just as the testimony about Christ has been confirmed among you – 7 so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 1:3-9).12
When Paul’s greeting to the Thessalonians begins, I expect that it will soon end, just as it does in his other epistles, but this is hardly the case. The basis for his thanksgiving to God and for his confidence in the success and survival of this church goes on for three chapters. It is only when we get to chapter 4 that Paul begins to exhort the Thessalonians regarding sexual purity (4:3-8), self-sufficiency (4:9-12), and the Second Coming (4:13-18). We will explore the reasons for Paul’s extended greeting at the end of this message.
Before we leave Paul’s greeting, allow me to point out a couple more things. First of all, we should note that Paul looks at the spiritual health of the church at Thessalonica in a three-dimensional way. He looks at the fruit of their faith, love, and hope:
2 We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers, 3 because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, emphasis mine).
Notice that when our Lord speaks to the church at Ephesus, He evaluates them by these same three fruits in the same order, yet without calling attention to the source (faith, love, hope) of these manifestations of life in Christ:
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who has a firm grasp on the seven stars in his right hand – the one who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 ‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false” (Revelation 2:1-2, emphasis mine).
I have to confess that I am somewhat puzzled by the fact that “work,” “labor,” and “endurance” are all singular in 1 Thessalonians. I would have expected Paul to say, “your works of faith and labors of love.” After giving this some thought, I came to this possible explanation for the use of the singular here. Paul is not talking about the individual achievements or deeds of these Thessalonian saints, but of their collective manifestation of their life in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 4,13 it is clear that Paul is speaking of the collective growth of the church as a whole, rather than individual growth.
I think this was important in the church at Thessalonica, as it is important in every church. Paul gave thanks to God for all of the saints, not just some of them. He speaks collectively of the fruits of their life in God, rather than of individual manifestations of life. This serves to emphasize the unity of the body of Christ and the equality of each and every member. Those who came to faith from Judaism are in no way superior to those who were God-fearers or raw pagans before faith. They are one body.
4 We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction. 7 As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For from you the message of the Lord has echoed forth not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place reports of your faith in God have spread, so that we do not need to say anything. 9 For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:4-10).
We can easily sense Paul’s confidence regarding the success and survival of the church at Thessalonica, but it is vitally important that we grasp the basis for his confidence. He has already drawn attention to their “work of faith, labor of love, and endurance of hope” in verse 3. We are now about to learn the source of that faith, love, and hope – God Himself. The basis for Paul’s confidence in these saints is the sovereignty of God manifested in their election.
Let’s start with the word “election.”14 This refers to God’s choice in eternity past of those who He will irresistibly draw to faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. Fallen man is born an enemy of God, and he is thus unwilling and unable to come to Him on his own:15
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
So Jesus added, “Because of this I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come” (John 6:65).
37 “Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. 39 Now this is the will of the one who sent me – that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day” (John 6:37-39).
In the final analysis, it is not we who (first) choose God, but God who first chooses us:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (John 15:16).
When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying (Acts 16:14).
First and foremost, salvation is God’s choice of us and God’s work in us.
6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:1-8).
This is not to say that we have no part at all in salvation, for we who are chosen of God must receive the gift of salvation by faith. And those who are chosen will do so.
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), 9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news” (Romans 10:8-15).
In the end, those who are chosen of God will trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, and those in whom God has begun His good work will persevere till the end:
27 “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one” (John 10:27-30).
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
This is the reason why Paul has such great confidence regarding the growth and perseverance of the Thessalonian saints. He knows that salvation and sanctification are God’s work, and thus Paul (and we) can be sure of the outcome of our faith.
Allow me to make a few more comments about election, based upon Paul’s words in verse 4. The first word to which I would call your attention is “know” (some translations like the NASB render it “knowing”). When Paul speaks of election here, he is not introducing something new to the Thessalonians. This is something he has already taught them. That would indicate that the sovereignty of God in salvation is something that should be taught sooner than later. Some are inclined to put this off indefinitely. Paul did not.
The second word that we need to note in verse 4 is “loved” (by God). Election is not contrary to love; it is the expression of love. I have often heard it said, “We believe in a God of love. . . .” What that implies is that a God of love would not be selective, but would show kindness and salvation to all. But love is selective. In Romans 12, Paul wrote,
Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good (Romans 12:9).
Love discriminates. When a man loves a woman and marries her, he sets her apart from all others. He treats her as more special than any and all other women. The “love” of this world, especially sexual “love,” seems not to discriminate, much to the detriment of our society. Election is not contrary to love; it is the expression of love. Note how God describes His (s)elective love for Israel:
37 Moreover, because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants who followed them and personally brought you out of Egypt with his great power (Deuteronomy 4:37).
7 It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored [literally, “set His love on you”] and chose you – for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples (Deuteronomy 7:7).
15 However, only to your ancestors did he show his loving favor, and he chose you, their descendants, from all peoples – as is apparent today (Deuteronomy 10:15).
The third word, “chosen,” has already been discussed, but let me suggest one of the implications of being “chosen” for the Thessalonian saints. Being chosen means that you were chosen by God. Being chosen by God means that you are not a second-class citizen of heaven. My wife Jeannette and I had our children naturally. We love and are grateful for every one of them. But while we chose to have children, we did not choose the children we got. We took what God gave us at birth. But an adopted child has this special blessing: they became a child in their adoptive family because they were wanted, because they were chosen. The Thessalonian saints were in no way inferior to any other believers, whether they were Jewish or Gentile in origin.
Paul’s confidence is rooted in the sovereign purposes of God for His elect. So how is it that Paul can be so sure that the Thessalonians are among the elect? In verses 4-10, he spells out some of the evidences of the Thessalonians’ election.
The first evidence of the Thessalonians’ election is God’s authentication and empowering of the gospel message.
For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with much assurance (1 Thessalonians 1:5a, CSB).
The gospel Paul preached was not just words; it was certainly not words preached with human eloquence or with fleshly enticement.
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. 2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. 4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).16
When Paul preached the gospel, he depended upon the Holy Spirit to authenticate and empower his words because the natural man is incapable of grasping spiritual truth.
10 God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the things of a man except the man’s spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. 13 And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14 The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:10-16).
Paul does not tell us what the manifestations of God’s power were. It could have been the internal, convicting power of the Holy Spirit, apart from supernatural phenomena. This is consistent with the example of John the Baptist, whose words were powerful, even though he never performed any miraculous sign:
39 Then they attempted again to seize him, but he escaped their clutches. 40 Jesus went back across the Jordan River again to the place where John had been baptizing at an earlier time, and he stayed there. 41 Many came to him and began to say, “John performed no miraculous sign, but everything John said about this man was true!” 42 And many believed in Jesus there (John 10:39-42).
Our Lord promised His disciples that when the Holy Spirit came, He would empower their message so that men would believe and be saved:
8 “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:8-11).
No one knew the authenticating and convincing power of the gospel better than the Thessalonians. After all, it caused them to turn to God from their heathen idols and to cling to the truths of the gospel even though this meant suffering persecution.
In addition to this internal work of convincing and convicting men, God may have underscored the truth of the gospel through supernatural signs such as healings, such as took place in Ephesus:
11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, 12 so that when even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his body were brought to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them (Acts 19:11-12).
The second evidence of divine election was the conduct of the messengers who brought the good news of the gospel to Thessalonica.
You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake (1 Thessalonians 1:5b, ESV).
It was not only the message of the gospel that the Holy Spirit empowered and authenticated; it was also the lifestyle of the messengers. To put it in today’s vernacular, Paul and his associates “practiced what they preached” – they lived out the gospel that they proclaimed to the Thessalonians. Their lives bore out the truth of the gospel. These were men of a different stripe from the usual religious hucksters of that day (or ours). Their lives set them apart as those who lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Verse 5 only scratches the surface of the lifestyle of Paul and his colleagues, but that is because much of chapter 2 is devoted to spelling this matter out in much greater detail.
The third evidence of divine election is the response of the Thessalonians who believed the message that was brought to them and empowered by the Spirit. That is the substance of verses 6-10.
6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction. 7 As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For from you the message of the Lord has echoed forth not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place reports of your faith in God have spread, so that we do not need to say anything. 9 For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
Notice from these words how the Thessalonian saints manifested divine election. They turned to God from the idols they had formerly worshipped (verse 9). This is far different from adding one more deity to their long list of “gods.” What is one more god among so many? But these Thessalonian saints forsook the gods they had long worshipped and turned to God alone. This kind of conversion is truly miraculous.
It also put the Thessalonians at odds with their peers so that they were now persecuted for their new faith. And yet they joyfully suffered for the sake of the gospel (verse 6). This reminds me of the response of the saints in Jerusalem some time earlier:
40 and they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 41 So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:40-42, emphasis mine; see also 4:18-31).
In their rejoicing, they became imitators of Paul and Silas, who likewise rejoiced in their suffering:
22 The crowd joined the attack against them, and the magistrates tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had beaten them severely, they threw them into prison and commanded the jailer to guard them securely. 24 Receiving such orders, he threw them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the rest of the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:22-25, emphasis mine).
8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).
By responding to the gospel as they did, these Thessalonian saints became an example to all believers. The transformation of Thessalonians was so great that word went out concerning how they responded to Paul and his associates. It went throughout Macedonia and Achaia and even beyond (verses 6-9). Paul did not have to tell others about the Thessalonians; when Paul would arrive at some new city, the people would have already heard about the Thessalonians and their response to Paul’s preaching. You can imagine how this enhanced Paul’s preaching.
There was something else about the way the Thessalonians responded to the gospel. The gospel not only proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah, it also bore witness to His saving sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary and to His resurrection from the dead. And thus the gospel promised not only salvation from sin, but a glorious future for all eternity at the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Thessalonians embraced the hope of heaven and of Christ’s glorious return, to condemn the wicked and to reward the righteous.
Many are the implications and applications of our text. Let me mention a few of them.
We have much to learn from Paul about prayer. Our prayers tend to be shallow and self-centered, more of a wish list than anything (I speak for myself here). Paul’s prayers were persistent, passionate, thankful, and focused on the spiritual well being of others. We see this not only in our text, but in other New Testament passages as well.17 We would do well to study Paul’s prayers and to seek to imitate them.
Faith, love, and hope were benchmarks for the spiritual growth and health of the Thessalonians, as they are elsewhere in Scripture. If we wish to consider our own growth and health (or that of others), we would do well to think in terms of faith, love, and hope.
Just as 1 Thessalonians was written to encourage the Thessalonian saints in difficult days of adversity and persecution, so this book can serve to encourage us as the dark clouds of persecution gather for Christians in America. If the power of God is demonstrated in a church that is enduring persecution, we can be assured that God will sustain us in persecution as well. God has chosen to glorify Himself by using the weak and foolish things of this world:
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
He uses our weaknesses as much or more than He uses our strengths:
7 . . . Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).
God sustains us in times of persecution and tribulation for His glory. That is what He did for the Thessalonian saints and that is what He will do for us. Gone are the days when America could be called a Christian nation, and gone are the days when Christians were once respected for their faith. I suspect that it will not be long before the power of our government will be utilized in a futile effort to silence and suppress Christians. The joy of these saints in the midst of their tribulations is the same joy that we can experience and embrace on account of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us linger in these epistles, for they surely contain encouraging words for Christians.
I find as I read Paul’s expressions of love and affection that I want this same kind of love and affection for others. When I read a book like Paul’s epistle to the Romans, I say to myself, “Here is a man with a great mind.” When I read a book like Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, I find myself saying, “Here is a man with a great heart.” Nowhere in Paul’s epistles do we find any stronger expressions of his love and affection for the saints than what we have here in 1 Thessalonians. I know that I speak for my fellow elders when I say this to you: This is the way that we feel toward you. This is the confidence that we have in God to carry out His purposes and promises through you. This is the kind of affection that every Christian should have for fellow believers (and of course we should also have great love for those who are lost).
We see in our text that Paul is confident regarding the survival and success of the Thessalonians saints because of the soul strengthening truth of the sovereignty of God in salvation. The spiritual health and well being of the Thessalonians, like all Christians, starts, is sustained, and ends with God:
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).
Paul joyfully acknowledges his delight over the faith, love, and hope of the Thessalonians, but he does not view this as the result of merely human striving. Paul understands that salvation and sanctification are God’s work, first and foremost. It all began in eternity past with God’s election, His choice of these individuals who would become His saints. And because salvation started with God, Paul is assured that God will finish what He commenced:
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
Not only is the doctrine of salvation encouraging to those who are saved; it is an encouragement to us with regard to those who are lost in their sins. I remember years ago when a young woman who was new to the faith learned about the doctrine of election. She agonized because her husband was lost. I suggested to her that she look at this from a divine point of view. In whose hands would she prefer to leave her husband’s eternal destiny? Her husband was dead in his sins, not desiring or seeking God, but rather, he was God’s enemy. Left to himself, he would always choose to reject God’s offer of salvation in Jesus. But if her husband’s eternal destiny rests in God’s hands, then she should find comfort in knowing that He delights in saving lost sinners:
23 Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:11)
1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, 2 even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
There are no better hands in which to leave the destiny of the lost than the hands of God. Knowing that He delights to save sinners, we should be encouraged to pray to Him, pleading for their salvation, knowing that He not only desires salvation, but that He delights in answering the prayers of His children. And if He is pleased to grant our request, then we know He will call, save, and sanctify His chosen.
28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? (Romans 8:28-32)
We can see that the sovereignty of God in salvation (as He is, of course, sovereign in every area of life) is one of the great sources of the Christian’s comfort, courage, and joy. I have to say that some fail to understand this as Paul did, and as we should. I have heard some Christians agonize over whether or not they are saved, reasoning something like this: “If it is God that chooses men and women for salvation, rather than men and women choosing God, how can I ever know for certain that I am saved – that I am one of the elect?” The truth is that we choose to receive God’s gift of salvation because He first chose us. We would not choose God unless He first chose us. Furthermore, Paul calls our attention to the fruits of faith, love, and hope, the power of the gospel, and the power of a life lived to His glory. He reminds us that these are evidences of God’s sovereign work in saving and sanctifying us. Paul does not call our attention to divine election to cause us to doubt our salvation (assuming that we have trusted in Him); He does so to give us confidence in Him as the God of our salvation, a confidence that will sustain us in the midst of adversity.
There are those who wrongly respond to the sovereignty of God by seeking to justify their passivity: “Whatever God wants done, He will do, with or without our help.” Paul’s view of divine sovereignty is that this is what motivates us to act with boldness and confidence, knowing that He purposes to use us to achieve His foreordained purposes.
There are those whose misguided fatalism inclines them to depression, as though they are mere pawns in the hands of God. Paul’s attitude is one of great joy and gratitude, and he makes every effort to instill that joy, courage, and activity in others. The sovereignty of God is one of the most comforting and energizing truths we find in the Bible.
Why does Paul point to our experience as the foundation for our actions and application in 1 Thessalonians, rather than doctrine, as we find in other epistles? Think about it for a moment. In Romans, Paul lays down 11 chapters of solid doctrine, and only then does he proceed to application in chapters 12-16. In Ephesians, Paul sets forth doctrine in the first 3 chapters, and only then does he move to application in chapters 4-6. The same could be said of Colossians and other epistles. To my knowledge, only 1 Thessalonians begins with the believers’ experience in chapters 1-3 as the foundation for their practice in chapters 4 and 5. How do we explain Paul’s unique approach in 1 Thessalonians?
The first thing I would say is that while Paul does emphasize the experience of these Thessalonian saints, the first three chapters are not devoid of doctrine. Over and over again, Paul uses the expression (or something similar), “you know.” They are not ignorant of sound doctrine because it is apparent that Paul taught them much doctrine while he was with them.
2 We sent Timothy, our brother and fellow worker for God in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you and encourage you about your faith, 3 so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4, emphasis mine).
1 Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. 2 For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, emphasis mine).
The basis for Paul’s confidence regarding the Thessalonians was the sovereignty of God in salvation – namely their election. The truth regarding divine election is doctrine, and it is no light matter. Paul expects these relatively new believers to understand what he is talking about, and the only way he could expect this is if he had already taught them this doctrine. Thus, when Paul emphasizes experience, it is not at the expense of sound doctrine. Put differently, doctrine is what we learn from God’s Word. Experience is God’s work in us through His Word. Paul is not advocating experience over God’s Word, but he is promoting experiencing God through His Word.
What I am saying is that both sound doctrine and personally experiencing God’s working in our lives are vital to a healthy Christian walk. In recent days, Henry Blackaby (with others) has authored a very excellent book entitled, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. It is an effort to help Christians experience biblical truth (doctrine). When Paul wants to impart confidence and encouragement to those saints who are facing challenging times, he does so by calling attention to his teaching (sound doctrine) and to their experiences with God. It is not experience versus truth that we should seek, but experiencing truth, as Paul encourages us to do. Experience apart from the truth of Scripture is dangerous; experiencing the truths of Scriptures is a source of great delight and of confidence in God.
As we continue our study, may God grant that we gain not only an understanding of God’s sovereignty in our salvation, but that we also experience the confidence and joy which this truth is meant to create in us.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on June 13, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: .
2 See Acts 16:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2.
3 See Acts 17:5-10.
4 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18.
5 See Acts 28:17-29.
6 See Acts 16:19-24; 19:23-41.
7 See 1 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 5, 9-11.
8 See Acts 15:22.
9 This is important because even when Paul was run out of town, the others might be able to remain on (see Acts 17:14).
10 As Paul does, for example, in 1 Corinthians 1:1-2.
11 See 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.
12 Also see Philippians 1:3-11.
13 See Ephesians 4:14-16.
14 This is a subject that will need some time to explain. Let me suggest that the reader consult two of the sermons I have preached on this topic:
15 See also Romans 3:9-20.
16 See also 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2.
17 2 Corinthians 13:7-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Philippians 1:3-11; Colossians 1:3-14; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; 2 Timothy 1:3-4; Philemon 1:4-6.