The Virtual Apostle

Paul and the Thessalonians

All Bible quotations have been taken from the English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001.

The apostle Paul couldn't stay in Thessalonica very long. After abysmal treatment in Philippi where Paul and Silas were harassed, beaten and put in prison stocks for exorcising the demon of a fortune-telling slave girl, you'd have thought Paul and his travelling companions would have been keen to avoid further trouble and public notice, especially in Thessalonica, population: 200,000, capital of Macedonia and major trading point on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Luke writes, in Acts 17, that, upon his arrival Paul spent three Sabbaths in the Thessalonian synagogues preaching Jesus as the Christ (Greek for “Messiah” which is Hebrew for “Anointed One”) “as was his custom,” “explaining and proving [from the Scriptures] that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). We are told that some of the Jews came and joined Paul and Silas, along with “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” (17:4).

Perhaps it should be noted that the word for “Greeks” was also used to mean “Gentiles” (ie. “non-Jews”) in other parts of the New Testament, for example, Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” These Greeks, being “devout,” probably hung around the edges of the synagogues but were always excluded from the insular “club” that was Jewish society. Paul's words must have been met with great joy and gladness—perhaps, echoing the Ephesians to whom he wrote, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13).

One can imagine, then, the great anger of the local Jews, watching their followers shake the dust off their feet and head elsewhere. Luke the physician tells us that, out of jealousy, they gathered a mob around themselves, including “some wicked men of the rabble,” and set the city in uproar, attacking the house of Jason—presumably where the young Thessalonian church (ie. “assembly” or “gathering” or believers) was now meeting. Certainly it appeared that Paul and Silas were abiding there on Jason's hospitality. Unfortunately the mob was unsuccessful at producing the offensive pair and had to vent its fury, instead, on poor Jason and some of his other Christian brothers. They were dragged before the city authorities with the accusation that, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” Such a charge hadn't been levelled against a Christian since Christ was hauled up before Pilate and the Jews lobbied to have him crucified. Jason, however, gets off with a fine, and immediately he and his brothers send Paul and Silas away to Berea.

Three weeks was not enough for Paul to ground and establish his new church in the faith. No wonder he was worried and fretted over them. He eventually wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers....” (1 Thessalonians 1:2) - perhaps betraying some of the anxiety that had beset him, halfway across the Aegean sea in the pagan city of Athens, full of idols, a constant reminder of his “children” in Macedonia. Paul's fear was that “somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labour would be in vain.” (1 Thessalonians 3:5). Keen to discover the fate of that joyful little group of converts, meeting together at Jason's house, Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica—“to establish and exhort you in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Upon his return with the glad report that the Thessalonians “always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you” (1 Thessalonians 3:6), Paul immediately put quill to parchment (or got someone to do it for him on account of his poor eyesight) to respond by way of an epistle.

Paul's letter is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, it's one of his more personal pieces of correspondence, containing less of that dynamic doctrine for which he was to become so famous for in Romans or 1 and 2 Corinthians. Surely Paul wanted to ground his young charges in sound teaching; why doesn't more of it appear? Perhaps it was because the Thessalonians, unlike the Galatians, who had turned aside to a false gospel, or the Corinthians, who were sharply rebuked for their disorderly conduct and unhelpful way of worship, were more like the seeds who fell on good soil “and produced grain, some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:8). Paul speaks glowingly of how they “became imitators of us and the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6), remembering their “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). With great delight they had been fervently declaring the message he came to give them: “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). The Thessalonians, it appears, accepted the gospel, “not as the word of men but as it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” ((1 Thessalonians 2:13); they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” and are now waiting “for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9,10). With that kind of faith bearing the fruit of Godly living, it is no wonder that Paul says, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia.” (1 Thessalonians 4:9).

And yet Paul is careful to encourage and instruct them so that, even though they are going well now, they will not become too confident and eventually fall away. Paul speaks of himself as being “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7) or “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11) and, no doubt, felt a great deal of responsibility for them. He urges them to remember the circumstances under which he and his fellow workers came, eager to preach the gospel “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4), and how their behaviour exemplified how the Thessalonians were to live as Christians: “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:10) He reminds them how he and his companions “exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to talk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 2:12) and calls them to “do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1), bringing to their attention God's will for their lives: “your sanctification.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

Specifically, Paul charges them to be pure in the area of sexual immorality—“that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5). This light reminder of their pagan heritage perhaps only serves to highlight how much they have changed, turning from idols to serve the true and living God; Paul's implicit warning states, “You were once like this but not anymore; don't, now, go back to this.” To keep everything in perspective, Paul speaks of the longed-for return of Jesus—“the day of the Lord” which will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2), prompting them to remember that “you are not in darkness, brothers, for the day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day.” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). He exhorts them to live as children of the day: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) submitting to those who work among them, rule over them and admonish them in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:12); being at peace with one another; helping and encouraging others; being patient; doing good; rejoicing always; praying without ceasing; and giving thanks in “all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). “This,” he says, “is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

But the Thessalonians do not have to strive forward on their own. Paul's prayers are equally important as Paul's instructions. He appeals to God the Father and the Lord Jesus to do what he cannot do—“make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12), “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 3:13), and “sanctify you completely” so that “your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The Lord's character is to be relied upon: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). So even as Paul is prevented from coming to them and supplying “what is lacking” in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10), God works among them to conform them to the image of his Son.

Paul needn't have worried. God takes care of his church.

Karen

Next we talk to internet e-vangelists and super-encouragers Jens and Mike who run the funky gracenotworks.com Have a peek at their site and then hear what they have to say about their work.

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