The Commendation and Thanksgiving (1 Thess. 1:2-10)
In the first section of the epistle proper (1:2–3:13), the personal and historical section), Paul and his missionary team13 recall how the church was born (chapter 1), how it was nurtured (chapter 2), and how it was established more strongly in the faith (chapter 3). But in calling to mind the work at Thessalonica, the Apostle continued to express a heart of deep gratitude to the Lord for these Thessalonian believers (see 1:1; 2:13; 3:9).
What a powerful lesson there is here. Such an attitude of thanksgiving demonstrates Paul’s ever present perspective of life and ministry—the perspective of grace. Though it was Paul and his associates who brought the message to these believers and labored among them, these men realized the fruit of their labors was ultimately the product of God’s grace. If God Himself had not blessed their work, there would have been no converts and no church at Thessalonica. This is the perspective explained in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7.
5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (emphasis mine)
The Content of Their Commendation
1:2 We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers, 1:3 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. 1:4 We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 1:5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in speech, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much assurance (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 1:6 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. 1:7 As a result you became examples to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
The Means of Giving Thanks—Praying (vs. 2)
The Apostle commends the Thessalonians by expressing their gratitude to God for these believers, but the Greek sentence structure of verses 2-5 is long and somewhat complicated. There are three participles in the Greek text that draw our attention to the way Paul and his associates expressed their gratitude to the Lord. Some translations (NASB, KJV, etc.) show this with words ending in ‘ing’— “making mention … constantly bearing in mind … knowing … your election.” With this in mind, I have sought to reflect this construction in the outline as it pertains to the prayers of the missionary team as follows: (a) the means of giving thanks—through praying; (b) the occasion for giving thanks—remembering your work of faith … ; (c) the cause for giving thanks—knowing your election.
In nearly all of Paul’s epistles, he begins by giving thanks for his readers with Galatians being the only exception. Undoubtedly this was because of his deep disappointment over the works mentality (legalism) that had developed in the Galatian church. But there was no disappointment over the Thessalonians. In fact, they had become an example (1:7) so the missionaries continued to give thanks to God for this ministry of believers. This is emphasized by Paul’s words through the avenue of alliteration (the repetition of the same vowels or consonants at the beginning of words for emphasis). Note the words, “always for all of you,” pantote peri panton.
Occasionally, as a product of our Internet ministry, we receive e-mails asking for ideas about how to find a good church and preferably, a good Bible teaching church. While I offer some suggestions of things to look for, I always remind people that there are no perfect churches. Perhaps you’ve heard the humorous comment that if you find a church you think is perfect, don’t join it. Why? Because you’d ruin it. But some churches are a lot closer to the ideal and the church of the Thessalonians, though not perfect, was such a church.
By way of application, what can we learn from Paul’s and his associates’ thankfulness for these believers?
(1) It demonstrates the grace perspective about anyone’s ministry and productive results. God is the source of spiritual increase (1 Cor. 3:3-10).
(2) Though Paul was quick to give God credit and thank God for a fruitful ministry or change in the lives of others, he never lost sight of his personal responsibility to sow and water, or pray, preach, and plead (cf. 1 Cor. 15:9-11; Col. 1:28–2:2). Here is a wonderful illustration of the balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
(3) It provides an example for the kind of people we ought to be—thankful, faithful, and dependent workers.
(4) These were men who lived by praise with their focus on the Lord. We not only see the consistency of their prayers, but also their thankfulness. The emphasis on the consistent nature of their prayer life and thanksgiving in verses 2 and 3 is brought out by: (a) three continuous present tenses (giving thanks, making mention, and bearing in mind), (b) the adverbs “always” (vs. 2), and “constantly” (vs. 3); and (c) the phrase “in our prayers.” Literally, this is “upon our praying” or “the praying of us” meaning perhaps, “at the time of our praying” which seems to point to a regular time for prayer. Realizing their own inadequacy in ministry, they regularly turned to the only one who is sufficient (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5-6).
(5) Paul’s thankfulness and prayers for others were personal and specific. “Making mention” does not suggest just a casual remembrance. “Mention” is meneia and refers to “a remembrance in a special case, i.e., ‘the direction of the memory to some particular object.’”14
(6) The Apostle was thankful for “all” of these believers. He was not just being polite. He was genuinely thankful for what God had done in each of their lives. This demonstrates the importance of every believer in the body of Christ.
(7) This reminds us that the freshness of our memory for an individual affects our prayers. But it is also true that the character of our lives will affect a person’s remembrance. How important it is to be the kind of people that others love to remember.
The Occasion for Giving Thanks—Remembering (vs. 3)
Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father (KJV)
The occasion for giving thanks was their remembrance of the life-changing character that had occurred in these believers. This is described by the participle, mnemoneuontes, “remembering,” which introduces verse 3. But where does “without ceasing” or “continually” (adialeiptos) go? Does it go with the preceding clause, “making mention” or with the clause that follows, “remembering”? The question is answered well by Robert L. Thomas in the Expositors Bible Commentary.
Whether to understand adialeipts (adialeiptos, “continually”) (v. 2 of Gr. text) with the previous poioumenoi (poioumenoi, “making [mention]”) clause or with the subsequent mnemoneuontes (mnemoneuontes, “remembering”) presents a difficult choice. The connection of the adverb with prayer elsewhere in Paul (especially Rom 1:9; cf. 1 Thess 2:13; 5:17) argues for the former connection. The cognate adjective’s relation to mneian (mneian, “remembrance”) in 2 Tim 1:3 does the same. Yet its immediate juxtaposition with mnmoneuontes and the presence of the epi (epi, “on,” “in” [v. 2]) phrase as another temporal qualification of poioumenoi tip the balance in favor of rendering the adverb with v. 3: “continually remember.”15
The character of the Thessalonians and the concern of the missionaries for these believers brought them regularly to mind when they went to the throne of grace to pray.
While verse 3 focuses our attention on three specific areas of remembrance as discussed below, the whole chapter really amplifies the character of this church as remembered by the missionary team. Using Wiersbe’s alliterated description, here is a summary of that character: they were an effectual people (vs. 3), an elect people (vs. 4), an exemplary people (vss. 5-7), an enthusiastic people (vs. 8), and an expectant people (vss. 9-10).16
With regard to the specifics mentioned in verse 3, we should note that the substance of what they remembered is found in three words: work, labor, and endurance. However, Paul was quick to add three more words which were vital to these three active nouns. To each was added one of the great words of the Christian triad—faith, love, and hope. These are three Christ-like qualities, but each is the fruit of the Spirit and the Word—the products of spiritual living. These qualities of faith, love, and hope are absolutely essential if one’s work, labor, and endurance are to result in true fruitfulness. The Lord’s rebuke to the church of Ephesus provides a stern warning regarding our Christian service or ministry. In Revelation 2:1, Christ told the church, “I know your deeds (works) and your toil (labor) and perseverance (endurance),” but there was something missing and they experienced His rebuke. The church of Ephesus had works, labor, and endurance, but there is no mention of the faith, the love, and the hope as seen at Thessalonica as the source of their Christian activity.
These three prepositional phrases are what we call subjective genitives in the Greek and stand to the word they modify as root to fruit. They point to a work produced by faith, a labor motivated by love, and an endurance prompted by hope. The NIV even translates it similarly. But, as Scripture makes abundantly clear, each is in turn the result of the ministry of the Spirit of God and the Word of God in the heart and life of believers.
Their Work of Faith
“Work” is the Greek ergon, which refers to “what is wrought or made, a work, a deed, action, or accomplishment.” It is “work” (singular) not “works” (plural) and seems to look at a specific work or deed performed. “Faith” is pistis, the normal Greek word for that quality of life that is to characterize the believer’s life from start to finish. We are saved by faith and we are to live and walk by faith (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:7). Of course, the key element of faith is the object of faith. Is the object of faith able, willing, and available to save? Only in Christ are all these saving qualities found (see Phil. 2:5f.; Heb. 2:18; 5:7; 7:25; 13:5-6). Faith in the right object is also the fruit of ministry of the Spirit and the Word of God for “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Contextually, the work of faith undoubtedly refers to a past deed and is explained in verse 8 as “your faith toward God.” This is then further amplified in verse 9b, “how you turned to God from idols.” Faith in the Savior caused them to reject or turn away from their previous vain confidence in their empty idols. We must remember that faith in the Savior is the product of a biblical understanding of the person and work of Christ as God’s complete solution for our sin and need. People who are steeped in idolatry often just want to add Jesus to their pantheon of false Gods, but true faith in Christ necessitates, through an accurate grasp of the gospel and the issues, faith alone in Christ alone. For a quick commentary on consequences of faith alone in Christ alone see Acts 18:18-27.
Their Labor of Love
“Labor” is the Greek kopos, which refers to “laborious toil, trouble, difficulty.” The labor of love is a present labor and is explained in verse 9c, “to serve a living and true God.” Out of a deep love for the Lord and His people, the work of faith extended itself into a toil even to the point of weariness for the service of God and those He wanted them to minister to. Paul provided an excellent model for such labor to the point of weariness (see 2:1f.; and Col. 1:29–2:2).
Their Endurance of Hope
“Endurance” is the Greek hupomone, from hupo, “under” and meno, “to remain.” The idea is to remain under the pressure regardless of the intensity or length of time. So it means “endurance, patience, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance.” But it was not just an endurance of resignation, but one stimulated by hope. The “endurance of hope” is a present endurance prompted by a future prospect, a hope spelled out in verse 10, “to wait for His Son from heaven.” The best commentary I can think of for this quality is spelled out for us by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:14-18. In a context where Paul has recounted his endurance in the extreme pressures of his ministry for the gospel, he shows us how endurance is prompted by an eternal focus. He writes:
4:14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 4:15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 4:16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 4:17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 4:18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:14-18).
Here in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 the object of their hope is expressed by the words, “in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.” This points to the anchor and character of their hope. It was a living hope based on a living Savior and His exalted presence before the Father through resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand in heaven. From that exalted place He will return for His people. It is somewhat like those passages that speak of Christ at God’s right hand where He sits enthroned until He personally returns when His enemies will be made a footstool for His feet (Luke 20:41-43; Acts 2:35; Heb. 1:13; 10:13).
The Cause for Giving Thanks—Knowing (vss. 4-7)
4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice (election) of you; 5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (NASB).
As mentioned previously, the participle knowing introduces the next section which really extends from verse 4 through verse 10 and points the reader to the cause for the thanksgiving of Paul and his associates. Though the primary focus is on verse 4, the reason for the Apostle’s conviction of their election as brethren beloved by God is expressed first in verse 5 and again in verses 6ff. The first reason is seen in the character of the ministry of the missionaries, and second in the response and character of the Thessalonians as detailed in verses 6-7. Then verses 8-10 simply amplify and confirm the statements of verses 6-7.
The Confidence and Character of the Missionaries (vss. 4-5)
Paul begins by addressing them as “brethren” (or brothers and sisters).”17 This was an affectionate term which highlighted their new spiritual relationship as members of the family of God, as those who had been born into the family of God by the Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:11-13; 3:3-6; Tit. 3:5).
This relationship is then intensified by further describing them as “beloved by God.” “Beloved” is a perfect passive participle of the verb agapao, “to love.” The perfect focuses on the abiding results, the fixed condition of being the grace recipients (the passive voice) of God’s love. The participle may be adverbial, pointing to the cause of the election, “since you are loved of God,” or better, it is attributive adding a further description of their new relationship with God. Perhaps Paul intended a blending of both ideas. Paul normally used the verbal adjective, agapetos, “beloved,” but the use of the participle lays greater stress on the “active exercise of God’s love as already consummated and resulting in a fixed status of being loved (perfect tense).”18 Though persecuted by a hostile world, they were still the recipients of God’s fatherly love and care.
The missionaries were thankful for the Thessalonian believers because they were confident of their salvation as those selected or chosen of God. “Chosen” is the Greek ekloge, “selection, election, choosing.” With this word, we are confronted with the doctrine of election, a doctrine that has different effects on various people. It makes some people angry, confuses many, and even seems to frighten others. Why? Because in this doctrine man’s finite mind meets head on with the infinite mind of God and a truth that really falls into the category of an antinomy. An antinomy occurs when we have what appears to be a contradiction between principles or conclusions that are equally necessary and true.
That God has chosen to bless some individuals with eternal life is clearly taught in many places in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Deut. 4:37; 7:6-7; Isa. 44:1-2; Rom. 9; Eph. 1:4-6, 11; Col. 3:12; 2 Thes. 2:13). Equally clear is the fact that God holds each individual personally responsible for his decision to trust or not to trust in Jesus Christ (cf. John 3; Rom. 5). The difficulty in putting divine election and human responsibility together is understanding how both can be true. That both are true is taught in the Bible. How both can be true is apparently incomprehensible to finite human minds; no one has ever been able to explain this antinomy satisfactorily. This task transcends human mental powers, much as seeing angels transcends human visual powers and hearing very high-pitched sounds transcends human auditory powers.19
Having affirmed their conviction of his readers’ selection as the beloved of God, without elaboration on the doctrine of election, the Apostle quickly begins to set forth the reasons for this conclusion. As Thomas points out, “Paul cannot leave unproved so direct a statement regarding election. So vv. 5-10 give two grounds for the knowledge just asserted. The former of these relates to the experience of the missionaries themselves (v. 5),”20 and the other reason relates to the changed lives of the Thessalonians themselves (vss. 6-10).
5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
It is significant that one of the reasons Paul was so confident of their salvation was the way the gospel had come to the Thessalonians during the missionaries’ stay in that city. Four characteristics are given which describe this coming of the gospel: one is negative, “not in word only,” and three are positive, “but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” In our day of Madison Avenue techniques and manipulation and pressure, may we grasp this as a cleansing breath of fresh air.
Paul concludes verse 5 with reference to their manner of life as the missionaries who brought the gospel message. Note the last clause, “just as you know what kind of men …” This does two things:
(1) It restricts the four characteristics to the missionaries. Some have claimed the words “with power” and “with full assurance” refer to the recipients and the effects manifested in these new believers, but the words, “just as you know what kind of men … ,” restricts it to the missionaries.
(2) It shows the focus is primarily on the gospel, the message, because it is the message which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). The lives of preachers and teachers of the Word are important as chapter 2 makes so very clear, but above all, what we do with the gospel and how we handle it is an issue of utmost importance.
So what are the four characteristics which describe how the gospel came to Thessalonica?
The first one is the negative, “not in words only.” Of course, the gospel message did come with words since words are basic to intelligent communication of God’s truth. The gospel is a message, the witness to the work of God in the person and work of Christ for which the right words are crucial. However, this message was not merely in words. Men’s words can be very eloquent, persuasive, and entertaining and move people emotionally and intellectually, but such can’t save them and bring them into the family of God (see 1 Cor. 2:1ff.).
Next, the words, “but also,” point us to the three positive elements. “But” is alla, a strong conjunction of contrast. Further, each of the three positive characteristics have the preposition “in” (en), which makes them each distinct issues, though of course related.
First, in contrast to mere words, the gospel came “with power.” But to what does this refer? Some would like to relate this to miraculous works as authenticating signs, but normally, the plural, “powers,” would be used if that were meant (see Matt. 13:54; 14:2; 1 Cor. 12:10; Gal. 3:5; Heb. 2:4; 6:5). Others would relate it to the inward power in the messengers as a result of the filling of the Spirit, but this important characteristic is brought out by the next prepositional phrase, “with or by the Spirit.” Rather, could it not refer simply to the inherent power of the gospel as the “Word of God which is alive and powerful” (Heb. 4:12)? It is not just a message of words, but a message which is living, active, powerful and able to bring men into a saving relationship with the living God for one simple reason: It is God’s Word and it is truth. It is the true revelation of God’s activity in Jesus Christ. See also the Apostle’s comment in chapter 2:13.
“And in the Holy Spirit” takes us to the second of the positive elements that gave these missionaries their assurance. Paul and his associates knew they were indwelt by the Spirit as their helper or enabler for ministry (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7f; Acts 1:8). The Spirit of God, as the third person of the Trinity, is called “the Spirit of Truth” because of His role in taking the truth of the Word and revealing it to men (see John 14:17; 15:26; 16:8-13; 1 John 4:6; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 2:6-16). Because of the blindness and hardness of men’s heart, they are powerless to even desire, much less grasp the life-giving truth of the gospel (cf. Rom. 3:11), but by the pre-salvation ministry of the Spirit who led the missionaries (see Acts 16:6-10), who prepares hearts (Acts 16:14), and who convicts and draws men to God (Rom. 2:4; John 12:32; 16:8f.), some hear, grasp, and believe the gospel and experience its saving power (see also 2 Thess. 2:13).
Third, the words “and with full conviction” point us to the faith and confidence of the missionaries. It was not in their looks, in their beaming personalities, in their eloquence, oratorical skill, nor in their methodology. They preached with conviction knowing and resting in the fact they were preaching the powerful, life-giving truth of God fortified by the powerful ministry of the Spirit of God who worked both in the missionaries and in their hearers.
With the words, “just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake,” we see the perfect balance needed in effective ministry. The message, of course, is all important, but so is the life of the messenger. As Paul does in several places (1:5, 9; 2:1, 10), he appealed to his readers’ first-hand knowledge of the missionaries. As Paul and his companions had preach a Spirit-empowered message, so they had also lived unselfish lives that were fully consistent with that message while they were in Thessalonica. What an important lesson for all of us. If we are not careful, our lives speak so loudly no one wants to listen to what we say.
The Conduct and Character of the Thessalonians (vss. 6-7)
1:6 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. 1:7 As a result you became examples to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
With verse 6 we are introduced to the second evidence of their election, the effects of the gospel as it changed the lives of the Thessalonians. A number of results were evident. (1) They “received the message with joy from the Holy Spirit” and were saved. (2) They did so “despite great affliction.” (3) They then became “imitators” of Paul and also the Lord. (4) They developed spiritually to a point of becoming “examples to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (5) And their testimony was such that they developed a witness “in every place,” a hyperbole for the broad impact of their testimony in the surrounding regions.
They received the message in faith (vs. 6b)
Though the Apostle mentions becoming imitators first, chronologically the first evidence of their election had to be their reception of the message. “Receive” is dechomai, which means “to readily receive information and to regard it as true—‘to receive readily, to accept, to believe.’”21 They readily received and believed the message, literally, “the word,” not the written Word of the New Testament, which was not yet in existence, but the gospel message which undoubtedly included the fundamentals of doctrine so vital to Christian growth and maturity. “Received” is an aorist participle which describes the conditions that led to their changed lives. Because the participle is in the aorist tense, it may just look at the initial reception of the message, but the aorist may also look at many acts pulled together as one historical fact. Thus, the participle may take into account all the teaching they received from the missionary team while they were at Thessalonica. The context favors this because of the mention of their afflictions which more than likely occurred after the missionaries were forced to leave. As Bruce points out:
Nothing is said in Acts 17:1-9 about persecution directed against the Thessalonian converts in general; it is against the missionaries and secondarily against their hosts (“Jason and some of the brethren”) that the rabble is stirred up by disapproving Jews. It might be expected that, when the missionaries got away safely, resentment against them would be turned against their followers; according to 2:14, it was at the hands of their compatriots that they met with persecution. Thus they shared the lot not only of the missionaries but of the Lord himself. As Paul might have put it, they experienced “the fellowship of his sufferings” (cf. Phil 3:10).22
They became imitators of the missionaries and the Lord (vs. 6a)
The teaching and example of the missionaries (though only for a few weeks) and the afflictions they faced plus the ever present ministry of the Spirit were the tools God used to produce spiritual growth and changed lives. Our word imitate may lead to the wrong impression. Christian imitation has nothing to do with outward conformity where someone merely copies the actions, mannerisms, or speech of another. The Greek word is mimetes from mimeomai, “to imitate, emulate, use as a model.” The main idea here is to follow someone as an ideal model or example, but, as the New Testament context makes clear, this is not merely a matter of external conformity, but change from the inside out through receiving and following the spiritual truths of the faith as seen in the life of the model.
The biblical plan and order of modeling and following is as follows:
(1) With Christ and the Heavenly Father as their own personal model (John 15:13; 1 Pet. 2:21; Eph. 5:1), mature Christian leaders need to recognize they have a vital responsibility to model the reality and character of Christ to those they teach and minister to (1 Tim. 4:12; Tit. 2:7; 1 Pet. 5:3).
(2) They may even encourage others to imitate or follow their example as long as they take heed to their own walk (1 Tim. 4:12-16) and are sure they are seeking to follow the example of the Savior themselves (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:9).
(3) The ultimate goal of the leader must always be to help others to become imitators of Christ Himself. At first, disciples became imitators of their spiritual parents or teachers, the normal and natural pattern for spiritual growth, but teacher and student alike must recognize that the ultimate goal is to become like the Savior who is our perfect model and objective (1 Pet. 2:21). Since Paul’s objective was to be like Christ, he could encourage his disciples to imitate his walk, but always with the goal in mind of imitating the character of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1)
(4) The basic order or process is: (a) Leaders are to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) that they might be models for others (1 Pet. 5:3); (b) new converts and the flock as a whole are to imitate their leaders, assuming of course their leaders are following Christ (Heb. 13:7); (c) other churches are to recognize their responsibility to be a model of godliness or Christ-likeness as the Thessalonians were to the believers in Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess. 1:7); (d) all are to become imitators of God who is revealed to us in Christ (Eph. 5:1).
Following the example of others has nothing to do with imitating the style or charismatic personalities of certain Christian leaders. What we are to model for others and imitate in others is Christian character as illustrated in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) or in Paul’s attitude and behavior as it pertained to some of the doubtful issues like eating meat offered to idols. Paul’s pattern was that of love, putting the needs of others above himself as Christ did for us. It is really this Paul had in mind contextually in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when he said, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (for the immediate context see 1 Cor. 10:31). The same principle is seen in the context of 2 Thessalonians 3:9 as it pertained to working to support oneself and one’s family (see 3:6-15).
The Thessalonians became imitators of Paul and the Savior, and of the churches in Judea by the experience of Christ’s character in the midst of suffering and persecution (see John 15:18-21; 16:33; Acts 14:22; 1 Thess. 2:14; 3:4; 2 Tim. 3:12). We must not forget that while all suffering is painful, it, along with the ministry of the Word and the Spirit, are tools God uses to promote genuine spiritual growth and Christ-like change.
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3-5 NASB).
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
They became an example for believers everywhere (vs. 7)
“As a result you became examples to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” The only church Paul ever calls an example or model is the Thessalonian church. Though not perfect, it gives us a pattern for what churches ought to be both in spiritual growth and ministry. The pattern is developed through the principle of Christian imitation mentioned in verse 6. Verse 7 flows out of the statement of verse 6 as evident in the words, “As a result” (hoste, points here to an actual result, “so that”) you became examples …
The Confirmation of Their Commendation
1:8 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. 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 1:10 and to wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath.
In keeping with Paul’s words of commendation in verse 3, verses 8-10 confirm the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope.” Verse 8 looks at their past work of faith with the words, “your faith toward God.” Verse 9 focuses on their present labor of love, as those who had “turned to God from idols,” and began serving the living and true God. Then, with verse 10 and the words, “to wait for His Son from heaven,” Paul confirms their prospective endurance of hope.
Their Work of Faith Confirmed (vs. 8)
Verse 7 tells us the Thessalonian church became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. But how did they do this? Paul explains in verses 8-10. Verse 8 explains how they became an example: The word of the Lord effectively echoed forth throughout the region as an expression and product of their faith. Verses 9-10 explain why they became an example. Because they had received the ministry and teaching of the missionaries, they turned to God from idols and this resulted in a dynamic effect—they began to serve God and wait up for His Son from heaven.
One of the logical, natural, and necessary products of imitating the character of the missionaries and the Savior was to become a witness to others of the saving grace of God. Before looking at the details of their witness as examples, we can summarize their witness in three distinct developments:
1. Their witness echoed throughout the surrounding regions.
2. The report declared the drastic change of life (turning to God from idols they began to serve … ).
3. They had a new hope and focus for life; they were living in the light of the return of Christ, a hope which gave them endurance and courage.
The first characteristic concerned how their witness had spread. The message of the Lord (literally, “the word of the Lord”) echoed forth from this church. “Of the Lord” can mean either, “from the Lord as the source and authority” or “about the Lord as the content of the witness.” Both are in fact true and this may be one of those intended divine ambiguities.
The term “sounded forth” or “echoed” is the Greek execheo, “to cause to resound, sound or ring forth.” It seems that the Apostle saw the Thessalonians as amplifiers who first received the gospel message but then sent it reverberating on its way with increased power and scope much like an echo in the mountains.
But how did they accomplish this? Does this suggests they immediately became missions oriented and sought to take the gospel to others through missionary activity? Or was this simply the product of others hearing and telling about the changed lives of these believers who lived in the midst of this pagan city? Or does it include both? Commentators perceive this differently. In point of fact, we are not told exactly how their witness spread so we can only guess.
Apparently it was not through an organized evangelistic campaign that their witness went forth, though Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica and elsewhere illustrates this approach. But it was through the personal lives and testimonies of these transformed individuals that neighbors heard about their faith in God. As they went the gospel was heard everywhere, so an apostolic missionary campaign was not needed.23
After receiving the gospel, the Thessalonians took it to others. It was Paul’s mission strategy to plant churches in the population centers and to let these churches take the good news to the surrounding districts. From Thessalonica the word of the Lord “rang out” (the Greek word exechetai denotes a loud ringing sound—giving us our word echo). That message was still being heard when Paul wrote. In fact it had gone beyond the border of Greece. Could it be that Aquila and Priscilla had heard about the witness of the Thessalonians in Rome and told Paul about it?24
The meaning is, that their conversion and its circumstances were so noted, that they carried the gospel through the province as if by the ringing peal of a trumpet. The rumour of what had happened at Thessalonica sped its way through Greece, and carried with it the gospel—sounded abroad loudly, fully, distinctly, the blessed message.25
Their Labor of Love Confirmed (vs. 9)
The second element that characterized their witness concerned the actual report about the tremendous change that had occurred in the lives of these believers at Thessalonica. Before receiving the word of the Lord, many of the Thessalonians had been idolaters—those in bondage to the worship of vain idols with all the perversions that accompanied pagan idolatry. Even some of those described by Luke as “God-fearing Greeks” were perhaps still battling with the pulls of their past, for though they were God-fearers they had not experienced the life-changing power of the gospel. But having welcomed God’s message by faith, they put their trust in the Savior and, as a result, became those who served the living and true God.
Though subtle, this order of events as seen in the tenses of this chapter is significant. Because of man’s proclivity to add something to the gospel message of faith in Christ (believe and be baptized, believe and give up your sins, etc.), or to simply attempt to add Christ to some other system of religion, it is important that we see the order here. First, they believed the message and in doing so, they turned to God from idols, i.e., they put their trust in God through faith in Christ rather than in their idol worship which kept them in bondage and fear. They were then able to serve the living and true God.
In verse 8, the Apostle first speaks of “their faith toward God.” Literally, the Greek text has, “the faith of you, the one toward God (he pistis humon he pros ton theon).” The article is repeated to emphatically call attention to the new object of their faith. Men have many objects (religion, money, good works, idols) of faith (things they trust in for salvation and sanctification, for security and significance), but there is only one object that saves us from sin’s penalty and power and gives eternal life; it’s the Lord Jesus.
In verse 9, as he did in verse 6, Paul gives us the order of events or the process that brought about the change in the Thessalonians.
(1) “For people everywhere report how you welcomed us” (literally, “… report what sort of entrance we had to you.”) Both the words “entrance” and the past tense verb, “we had” (an aorist indicative pointing to a historic fact) refer to the original preaching and reception of the gospel message.
(2) “How you turned to God from idols” also points to a past historic event (also an historic aorist), namely their conversion by faith in Christ, the point when they turned to God in faith. The verb here is epistrepho, “to turn, return” and was used of a change of mind or course of action. Idolatry in any of its forms is the product of those who have turned away from God (see Rom. 1:18f.). Faith in Christ is the first step in returning to God. In keeping with verse 8, turning to God involves faith in God through Christ, as the whole of the New Testament teaches. It is in essence the concept of repentance; it means turning from former sources of trust (whatever that might be) to trust in God’s plan of salvation and life through Christ. This also fits with verse 6 which shows the change in their lives was the product of welcoming the gospel in faith.
(3) With the words, “to serve the living and true God” (vs. 9) and “to wait up for His Son …” (vs. 10), Paul pointed to two results of turning to God from idols. “To serve” and “to wait” are both infinitives which may point to either a purpose or a result. Further, both infinitives are in the present tense to express the truth of a continued lifestyle that characterized these believers as a pattern for all Christians. They were living as bondservants in view of the hope of Christ’s imminent return. In turning toward God and putting their faith in Him, they were also turning their back on idols as a source of trust and as a way of life. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, never by our works (Rom. 3:21-30; Eph. 2:8-9). But salvation was also designed to transform our lives, changing us into the bondservants of God as we learn to continue to live by faith in God with eternal goals, for the just or righteous shall live by faith (Rom. 1:7; 6:1-23; Eph. 2:10).
The Thessalonians did not put off the old life as a religious work in order to be saved. Rather it was their understanding and belief in the message of the gospel and its revelation of God in Christ that led to salvation. This both caused and enabled them to then turn from their old life with its false hopes and perversions to one of serving God as one who is living and true.
This new message, the Word of the Lord, revealed the foolishness of their faith in empty idols and pointed them to the truth of God as He is revealed in Scripture. He is truly a living and true God who is revealed through the person and work of Christ, His Son. The nature of the true God as living and true is brought out in the Greek text by the absence of the Greek article with the adjectives, “living and true.” This anarthrous construction lays stress on the quality and nature of God as one who is living and true in contrast to man’s various idols, which are lifeless, false, and useless.
If one simply tries to add Christ to his pantheon of idols or to some other way of salvation he has failed to grasp and receive the message of the gospel. To do this is in essence to reject Christ as the way, the truth, and the life and stems from a failure to believe in Him as the Revelation of God to man and the Redeemer of man. On the other hand, to believe in Him biblically speaking is to first recognize that He alone, as God’s Son, the God-man Savior, is the way to God and the means of salvation through His death and finished work of the cross. To grasp this truth and believe it also means, as an outworking of faith, the repudiation and rejection of other sources of hope or trust for salvation. So the Thessalonians turned their back on idolatry because of their “faith toward God” (vs. 8). Then verse 9 explains the results that begin to occur as one grows in Christ: a turning to God as one’s source of life and away from idols to serve God and wait for His Son.
While we must turn from our past sources of trust for salvation, learning to serve the Lord is a process of growth (see 4:1ff. and cf. Rom. 6:1f.; and 12:1f.). As Christians, our ability to serve the Lord will always be hampered as long as we cling to those things from which we seek our security and happiness. Ability and willingness to consistently serve the Lord is related to depending on Him as the living and true God, as the only one able to truly direct our lives and give us significance, security, and satisfaction. Closely related is the next point (vs. 10), learning to live in the light of His sure return.
Their Endurance of Hope Confirmed (vs. 10)
There are several things we should note about their hope as an example for us.
First, there is the Nature of Their Hope. This is seen in the word “wait,” the Greek anameno, which comes from ana, “up, upward,” and meno, “to remain, abide.” It means “to remain in a place and/or a state of mind, with expectancy concerning a future event—to await, to wait for.” Our phrase, “wait up for” catches the meaning nicely. Think of a parent who, in anticipation of a son or daughter’s arrival, waits up eagerly and expectantly. Anameno means to expect, with the added notion of waiting patiently and confidently, but not necessarily in a passive way. How many mothers just sit back and wait for the arrival of that son who has been gone for so long? As part of their expectation, the mothers I have known were busy as a bee making pies, cookies, and preparing the foods they know their son loves. The Greek tense is present, which suggests this as an attitude and as a pattern that characterized and gave direction and courage to the way they lived, just as a mother’s expectation affects her plans and preparation.
We need to compare this to the attitude of those who live only for this life—trying to ‘get all the gusto they can because they only go around once’! There is a phrase used in the book of Revelation for what we might call the worldling, for those who live only for what they can get out of this life by way of rewards—position, power, praise, possessions, etc. Literally in the Greek text they are called “earth dwellers” (cf. Rev. 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:8) because their entire lives are centered on this life without much if any thought for the future. In the Bible, believers are called pilgrims, aliens, strangers, or sojourners because this life is to be viewed as a temporary sojourn. The believer who is serious about following the Savior must learn to see himself as a temporary resident on assignment (like an ambassador) while waiting for the return of the Savior. Even now there should be deep within us a longing for our true home which the Lord is preparing for us (John 14:1f.).
Christians who are prosperous and comfortable on earth may give money generously to Christian work but usually find it hard to think of heaven as home. It is one thing to speak piously about dying as “going home,” but quite another to “put our money where our mouth is.” Tragically, many who talk piously about “home” display little evidence of longing to be there. Home in Florida is more attractive. Tension exists between home on earth and home in heaven, and there are practical ways in which we can discover where our real interest lies.26
In warning His disciples about being anxious over the various details of life like clothing or food, He told them, “Do not accumulate for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But accumulate for yourself treasures in heaven, …” (Matt. 6:19-20). He then followed this up with “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vs. 21), words that challenge us to take a hard look at our values. Do they lie in this world or in the world to come? Are we living with a view to the glories of the future kingdom that will be ushered by the Lord after He comes for the church and at the end of the Tribulation, or are we earth bound. Truly, our perspective or outlook about this life determines our values which in turn determine our priorities and decisions as to how we live.
However, in anticipating the return of the Lord, Christians can have the wrong perspective or outlook, however, with regard to His coming as seen in the following:
Some of the Thessalonian believers quit their work and became idle busybodies, arguing that the Lord was coming soon. But if we really believe the Lord is coming, we will prove our faith by keeping busy and obeying His Word. Our Lord’s parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27) teaches that we must “occupy” (be busy; in this case, invest the money) till He returns.27
But how could they be so confident of the return of this person for whom they waited? This is found in the next point.
Second, there is the Object of Their Hope. Their hope is in a person here identified in several ways, all of which give certainty to their hope.
(1) This person is identified as “His Son,” meaning God’s Son, the divine Son of God. But this person is also the one called “Jesus,” a man. This is the God-man. He is one who is both God and man united together in one person by the incarnation. As God He could not be man’s representative, but as a man, He could represent us and die for our sin. As man He could be tempted, though as the God-man, He would not and could not sin. As God He could give us not just life, but eternal life and not just righteousness, but perfect righteousness.
(2) He is identified as coming from heaven. This identifies Him as the one who ascended in a cloud to the right hand of God, the place of authority, rule, and majesty. Literally, He comes “from the heavens” (plural) as the one who will pass through the heavens from the heaven of heavens, the very throne of God. This is the place of sovereign rule and authority (see Matt. 28:18).
(3) He is the one “whom He raised from the dead.” This marks out this person as the resurrected One and thus the basis for a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3). The resurrection is that momentous event which marked out Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as the Savior, and the means of forgiveness and justification before God (Rom. 1:4; 4:24-25; John 16:8-11; Acts 17:31).
(4) He is identified as “Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath.” He is one who is a deliverer, a savior from wrath. But to what does the coming wrath refer? The following comments from the Bible Knowledge Commentary succinctly summarize the issues.
The wrath of God will be poured out on unrighteous people because of their failure to trust in Christ (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18). This happens at many times and in many ways, the great white throne judgment being the most awful occasion (Rev. 20:11-15). But the “time of trouble for Jacob” (Jer. 30:4-7), also called “the Great Tribulation” (Rev. 7:14), will be a period in history during which God’s wrath will be poured out on the earth as never before (cf. Rev. 6-19).
Was Paul thinking of a specific time in which God’s wrath would be poured out (1 Thes. 1:10), or was he referring to the outpouring of God’s wrath on unbelievers in a more general sense? Paul, the Thessalonian believers, and Christians today will escape all aspects of God’s wrath, general and specific, including the Tribulation period. The clear implication of this verse is that Paul hoped in the Lord’s imminent return. Otherwise Paul would have told his readers to prepare for the Tribulation.
In the phrase “from the coming wrath” the word translated “from” means that Christians are kept from it, not taken out of it. The same verb (rescues) and preposition (from) are used in 2 Corinthians 1:10 where Paul said he was delivered from a deadly peril. Obviously this does not mean Paul died and was resurrected. Christians will be kept away from God’s wrath, not just kept safe through it (cf. comments on Rev. 3:10).
This chapter, like every chapter in this epistle, closes with a reference to the return of Jesus Christ (1 Thes. 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18, 5:23).28
Christians may be chastened by the Lord as a Father chastens His children (Heb. 13:5f). This is not punishment for sin since Christ bore that for us on the cross. Rather, it is discipline designed to train us in righteousness and to stop bad behavior. Christians have the Lord’s promise that they will not come into judgment for sin (see John 5:24-25 and Rom. 8:1). So it is true, Christians are delivered from all aspects of God’s wrath in the form of judgment poured out against sin, but “the coming wrath” of verse 10 is best understood to refer to a particular wrath, the wrath of the Tribulation. Some reasons are as follows:
1. “Wrath” has the definite article, actually, it is a restrictive attributive, “the wrath, the coming one,” and this suggests something very specific which was on the minds of the Thessalonians as seen later in this epistle (5:1f.).
2. Chronologically, the next great expression of God’s wrath is the Tribulation which is a time of God’s wrath poured out on a Christ rejecting world. The judgment of the Great White Throne (see Rev. 20), a judgment of all the unbelieving of all generations, does not occur until after the millennial reign of Christ which occurs after the Tribulation and the events of Revelation 6-19.
3. In this book, the resurrection of believers and the deliverance of believers are closely related or tied together (see 4:13f.). The implication is that deliverance comes through the rapture.
4. The present tense of “wait” suggest that “wrath” here is the Tribulation. They expected His return at any moment and it is His imminent return that delivers them and all believers.
What exactly are we waiting for as Christians? We are waiting for the personal and visible return of a person, the person of Jesus Christ whose return is imminent, it could be at any moment. His return will mean the rapture as described in chapter 4:13f. and will mean a resurrected glorified body (Phil. 3:20-21), being taken to a new home prepared for us as His bride (John 14:1-6), and it will mean the Bema or judgment seat of Christ, a place where He will reward us according to our faithfulness (Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:9-10).
What we have seen in chapter 1 concerns the report of those who had witnessed the changed lives of these believers in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances—paganism, moral perversion, and persecution. Yet, they not only came to Christ, but they grew, endured, and became a resounding witness. It is a wonderful testimony to the power of the gospel or the Word of God which reveals the glories of the person and work of Christ for a dying world. But, as mentioned in the introduction, God uses men to take this message. As such, the changed lives of these Thessalonian believers is also a witness to the ministry of dedicated people who, believing in and resting in the power of His Word, were willing to give their lives as living sacrifices to the Lord and to others in preaching and teaching this Word. The nature and reality of this will be seen in chapter 2.
13 Some argue that the plural here refers only to Paul because it is argued that the Apostle often uses the plural of himself alone citing 3:1-2 as an example. However, with the immediate mention of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy in verse 1, we should surely understand this to refer to Paul and his associates.
17 Literally, the Greek text has “brothers” (adelfoi), but this Greek word may used for “brothers and sisters” or “fellow Christians” as here (see Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, electronic media, where considerable nonbiblical evidence for the plural ajdelfoiv meaning “brothers and sisters” is cited).
25 John Eaide, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, Edited by William Young, MacMillan & Co., 1877, Reprint by James and Klock Christian Publishing Co, Minneapolis, 1977, p. 47.