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Our Flow is Gospel - An Introduction to 1 Thessalonians

Introduction

There are many ways one might gain insight into the culture and way of life of a community. You might take a photo of an instance in time where people are living a story in a certain place. You might send that to friends by sharing it online, making some comments, clicking on like buttons and hearts. You might share a short video saying hello for a few seconds. Yet, long before Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and texting people would write to one another. These letters would give insight into the people and their lives. In many ways letters and journals have served for thousands of years as great snapshots into the hearts and souls of people and their communities.

In the ancient city of Thessalonica the gospel of Jesus Christ had given birth to a new church; a community of Christians living out the gospel and the mission of God together. We have two letters in the New Testament written to this people by an early influential Christian leader. This summer we will look at first of these letters to see the heart of a people.

In our study we will feel the flow of this new Christian community and see how it instructs us as a young community of faith living in the 21st century. By seeing their concerns and the teaching they received, we will see how God might have us live together in our generation.

This essay will give us a brief overview of the background of the people and places involved in gospel mission in the first generation of Christians after the resurrection of Jesus. I will first lay out the ancient context of the City of Thessalonica. Second, we will look at the birth of the church in that city, the authors of the first Thessalonian letter as well as the timeframe and socio-rhetorical circumstances surrounding its composition. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the theological themes which will be before our hearts and minds as we travel through this book together.

Our story begins with God’s work to send a people to a place with good news. So we will now look to that ancient city where new life through Jesus Christ was birthed in Jew and Gentile alike.

The Ancient City of Thessalonica

The city of Thessalonica has a long and storied history so we will but skip along the top of the depths of the historical sea in that place[1]. The city was strategically located along the Via Egnatia, the great eastern road of the ancient Roman and Byzantine Empires. Along this prominent trade route from west to east it was a prominent city in the ancient world. Furthermore, it was accessible by sea as it located at the northern end of the gulf of Therma.[2] The city has a history that spans well over two thousand years founded in 316BC by the Macedonian military leader Cassander.[3] The city was named after his wife Thessaly who was also the ½ sister of Alexander the Great.[4] In 146 BC it became the capital of the new joint Roman province of Macedonia cementing its influential role in the Greco-Roman world which was the stage for the first coming of Jesus the Messiah. In 42 BC it sided with Octavian in the Roman civil war and as a result was given the status of a free city which governed its own affairs.[5] According to Luke in Acts 17, the city was led by five politarchs or political leaders which were responsible for the city.[6] As a city located on the sea and along an important trade route it would have had a cosmopolitan feel where the peoples of the world flowed together. Its Jewish population was large enough to justify a formal synagogue[7] yet it was a center of gentile culture and trade. It was in this world that a church, a new community made of both Jew and Gentile, would become one new man[8] in Jesus Christ. The influence of this area of the world has continued into the modern area with the city of Thessaloniki being the second most influential in Greece today. It was around the middle of the first century that the city received its first encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ as the church expanded outward from its birthplace in Jerusalem.

The Birth of Churches in Maceonia

The Narrative

After Jesus was crucified, buried and raised from the dead by the mighty working of God he unleashed his church into the world on his mission to seek and to save lost people and love and serve the world in his name. The narrative of this expansion of Jesus’ work is found in the New Testament Book of Acts. A crucial aspect of the story was Jesus saving, forgiving and calling one of the church’s arch enemies to be a leader and preacher of the faith. This man, Saul of Tarus, was sent into the world as the messenger Paul, a man called to proclaim the good news to the non-Jewish world. The narrative of Acts takes a turn when the Spirit of God called Paul and his two friends Silas and Timothy to preach the gospel in the province of Macedonia (modern day Greece). At this point the Gospel made its first foray into the continent of Europe and begins to transform its people and culture.

The first city they visited was Philippi and the gospel took root there in profound way. God saved a prominent businesswoman, they started a church in her house, rescued a demon possessed slave girl, endured a quick riot, the men were beaten and imprisoned and the local corrections officer at the jail gets saved after God did some work. It was a great beginning for the friends of mission and they would depart Philippi to preach the gospel in Thessalonica.

Acts 17 records Paul beginning his work in the city by preaching in the synagogues on three successive Sabbaths. He explained from the Old Testament that the Christ (or Messiah) was to suffer and rise from the dead. He then taught them how Jesus is this divinely appointed Christ and some of the people believe and join up with the missionary band. The first Christians in the city were described as Jews, many God-fearers and some prominent women of the City. As was the case in much of Paul’s work the “God-fearers” or “Devout Greeks” were numerous among the first converts. These people were those who were monotheistic worshippers of YHWH, the one true God, but had not fully converted yet to Judaism. Probably because of the circumcision thing as many likely wanted to keep their man business intact.[9] Leon Morris describes their social situation well:

These people were dissatisfied with the low standards of pagan morality and with the idol worship that fostered them. They were attracted by the monotheism and lofty morality of Judaism, but repelled by its narrow nationalism and ritual requirements. In Christianity they found a faith that satisfied.[10]

What we see is that the church in Thessalonica from the beginning was made up of Jews and Gentiles, males and females and likely both poor and rich.[11] Paul’s synagogue preaching lasted roughly a month but there is good reason to think his ministry among the gentiles took place over several months.[12]

The success of the mission in the city brought strong opposition from some of the Jewish leaders and the Christians were also accused of denying loyalty to Caesar due to their allegiance to King Jesus. As a result Paul and Silas were slipped out of town to Berea but the mob followed them there as well. Paul was then smuggled off to Athens and called for Timothy and Silas to rendezvous with him there. As Paul had observed great fruit from the gospel coming forth in Thessalonica he was concerned for the baby Christian community in the town. Once they reconnected in Athens, Paul dispatched Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how everyone was doing. While waiting in Athens he preached the gospel there as well and had some powerful interactions with the intellectuals on Mars Hill. Paul then moved out to Corinth the next city on his missional journey.

Timothy brought a good report about the faith, hope and love of the Thessalonian church and their ministry to others in the province of Macedonia. Apparently he also brought some of the needs and questions that they had as new Christians to Paul for his reply. This good report and interaction which came from Timothy served as the impetus for Paul’s first letter to them in roughly AD 50-51.

Authorship of 1 Thessalonians

The authorship of 1 Thessalonians receives universal attribution to the pen of the Apostle Paul. The letter begins with a very clear attribution:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

As noted by Gordon Fee, the letter should be identified as having come from all three of the men involved in the first gospel mission to the City. It is a letter of profound friendship from men who were personally involved in the mission of God with the people. So it is proper for us to say that Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote the letter expressing their joint concern for the church planted in Thessalonica. It is also clear that Paul most likely dictated the letter himself and at times speaks in the first person singular in the text.[13] Remarkably, Pauline authorship is not in question today by either believer or unbelieving New Testament scholarship. It is one of the New Testament letters whose authorship has a strong and almost unanimous scholarly opinion. Most also agree that the triple threat team of Paul/Silas/Timothy was in Corinth when writing the letter and the time frame may be isolated pretty well to around AD 50 when Paul first arrived in that city (see Acts 18).[14]

Social and Rhetorical Context of these Writings

The content of the letter gives us some insight into the social setting and context of early Thessalonican Christianity. First, we see that Paul was apparently defending himself, his way of life and his ministry against some form of slander. During his long opening recount thanking God for the Thessalonians and his work among them, we see him talk about the sincerity and purity of his work (1 Thessalonians 2:2-12). Perhaps there were still voices questioning his motive among the church’s opponents in the city and Paul indirectly answers these criticisms to reassure the nascent church.[15] Second, the church had to stand firm in its new Christian identity among an unbelieving world. They were dealing with persecution from both pagan and Jewish communities (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5, Acts 17:1-6). They were also learning to live differently in a culture of sexual perversion (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8) by seeing our bodies and interactions with one another through the lens of holiness not hotness. Much like our lives in New Jersey, they were called to be different from the world around them while living in that world on mission for Jesus. Paul offers them encouragement for that social context. Third, there were misunderstandings in the new church about the nature of the second coming of Jesus. No way!? Apparently they had their own Harold Campings[16] around at that time preying on people’s ignorance about the end times. Paul does much to help them understand the true nature and purpose of the coming Kingdom for Christians living on mission. Finally, Paul addresses a young church family growing up in their faith and influence. Learning how to grow up as a new church is an important thing that Paul communicated in this letter. This community of Jew/Gentile, Men/Women, Rich/Poor had to find its way forward together in the calling of Jesus Christ. This is partially why we are studying this letter at Jacob’s Well today. We are growing and maturing as a congregation and there is much work the Father has for us to do. It was into this social context that Paul and his friends spoke deep personal and theological truths. We will close our essay here by looking at a few of those together.

Personal, Theological Themes

The emphasis on our time together in 1 Thessalonians will cover many subjects pertinent to our walks with God in our time. Though the following are not exhaustive, these are some of the main themes we will study in our journey.

Evangelism and Conversion

One cannot miss this theme in 1 Thessalonians because it is the first memory of this church for which Paul gives thanks in chapter one. People got saved in Thessalonica. They heard the gospel, repented of sins, turned from idols to the living God and were rescued from the coming wrath. Yet they also took up the same missional cause and put their faith, love and hope to work. They influenced others and the gospel sounded forth from them and they evangelized their region. To such Paul could only say “Boom!” or something like this. We too must be converted by the gospel in a powerful way so that we desire to extend its hope to others. Friends, let us not be stingy with the truth and take up our own work of faith and labor of love in our time.

The Theological Virtues

The great medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas spoke of man possessing the capacity for virtue. He spoke of ethical and intellectual virtues following many other thinkers throughout history. Yet as a Christian he could say more. He could speak of virtues directly associated with God and revealed to us in the divine revelation of Scripture. He could speak of faith, hope and love and how we relate to God. Many are familiar with these from the wonderful treatment about love in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. That chapter ends: So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Many have read that chapter or at least heard in overtly romanticized at a wedding. What many do not realize is that faith, hope and love are in full effect in Paul’s theology in 1 Thessalonians a few years before telling us all about love. Faith, hope and love drive our lives and relationship with Jesus. We will look at these during our jaunt through 1 Thessalonians.

Church and Ministry as Family

God’s calling of families together for his purposes is a great theme in the Bible. We have just taken a good look at this at Jacob’s Well. In chapter 2 of 1 Thessalonians Paul chooses family metaphors: father, mother, children, brothers and sisters to describe the church and gospel work and ministry. What a great privilege to see our life and work together. We are family and should fight, labor, reconcile and persevere together as such on the earth.

Eschatology, Eschatology Everywhere

It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine. So sang the great 1980s band REM on their album Document[17]. How should we feel about the end of the world? Fine? Freaked out? Funny? It’s an interesting question that is taken up in the Thessalonian letters. The end of history is a subject that has entered the brains of people from various cultures throughout history; most recently famous were the Mayans. Jesus taught us something about a coming Kingdom of God that shapes the reality of our lives now. Far too often Christians get caught up in hysteria about end times, signs of the end, bar codes and bad Christian movies about such things. Is there any sane way to both expect his coming and live fully present in our mission today? Yes, a resounding Yes! I hope we will see that eschatology,[18] they study of last things, is not merely about Armageddon but is profoundly about the time between Jesus first and second advents. Our lives should be informed by his coming and glory and this should be a source of holiness and hope…not hysteria.

New Testament professor G.K. Beale describes the biblical emphasis on eschatology quite well:

This means that the doctrine of eschatology in New Testament theology and systematic theology books should not merely be one among many doctrines nor addressed at the end as though it describes only the very end of the world as we know it. Rather, the doctrine of eschatology should be part of the title of such a textbook, since every doctrine breathed the air of a latter-day atmosphere... In light of what has been said, the overriding idea of New Testament theology can be stated as follows: Christ's life, death and resurrection through the Spirit launched the end-time new creational Kingdom for God's glory. The kingdom of the new creation is the controlling conception of eschatology, and all other eschatological ideas flow out of it.[19]

In this light, eschatology is much more than who the anti-Christ is and what the mark of the beast is. In this light, the death, burial, resurrection and return of Jesus define us now so we live in light of his coming and glory. The judgment of God at the end also should flow into our now so that we are confident in the Day of Judgment. So we have sung often in our day: No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me.[20] No fear friends. He is with us, he has called us by name, we belong to God (See Isaiah 43). This is our song, not freaking out about everything when some so called prophet of the end gets the church whipped up into end-times frenzy. Obviously we have much more to say about this and, by God’s grace, we will when we travel through this letter together.

Whole Life Holiness

Modern people love to compartmentalize life. This is my work-life, family-life, personal-life, sex-life, etc. The Scriptures call us to see our community as living all of life under the rule and reign of King Jesus. Furthermore, how we live and what we do will be judged by God. 1 Thessalonians has a strong calling to live together in light of the gospel in a manner worthy of God. It specifically called the Thessalonians to live different in relationship to God’s design for human sexuality. The world around them was freaky-deaky. We have something to learn about whole life holiness from the teaching given to this new church. God’s design and instruction on sex is a prophetic call to us in our own perverted day.

The Local Church

I have chosen to close with our final theme and simply state the obvious. 1 Thessalonian is teaching for local churches. It is written to people saved by Jesus, living out gospel mission in community among the peoples of the world. John Stott, the eminent 20th century pastor and theologian, sums this point up so well so I will let him exhort us before we close:

Secondly, these letters address a local church, and the life of the local church is increasing concern to many people today. When we affirm (as we should) that the church is central to the historical purpose of God, we are not referring only to its universal aspect, but also to its concrete, local, colourful manifestations. But what is to be our vision for the local church, and how is its life to be developed? Paul's letters to the Thessalonian church throw valuable light on such aspects as its continuous evangelism, pastoral care, ethical standards, reciprocal fellowship, public worship, obedience to apostolic teaching, and future hope. I cannot imagine how any church member or leader could fail to find both direction and inspiration in these letters for the life of their local church.[21]

Yes! We love the local church and we want to learn and be inspired by this letter to shape the life of our community here in central New Jersey.

Conclusion

As we conclude I want to offer one simple reminder as we dive into the depths of the Thessalonian literature. The themes in this book are not simply abstract theological concepts but rather truth from God to be lived out by persons. Namely: us. They are personal. They are to be known in truth, felt deeply and lived courageously in every epoch of history until Kingdom come. Our time is now, our flow is gospel, let us rep his rule, reign and mission now in our generation.

For the Glory of God, the Good of the City by extending Hope through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pastor Reid

© 2013 Jacob’s Well

 

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. 1-2 Thessalonians The Ivp New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Fee, Gordon D. The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009.

Green, Gene L. The Letters to the Thessalonians The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich. Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub; Apollos, 2002.

Keith Getty, Stuart Townend. In Christ Alone. Kingsway Music, 2001.

Morris, Leon. 1 and 2 Thessalonians : An Introduction and Commentary Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Nottingham, England. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press; Intervarsity Press, 2009.

REM. Its the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine). 1987.

Stott, John R. W. The Gospel & the End of Time : The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians : Includes Study Guide for Groups or Individuals The Bible Speaks Today Series. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991.

"Thessaloniki." Wikipedia (2013). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thessaloniki [accessed June 13, 2013].

 

Endnotes

[1] For a good sketch and overview see this wiki "Thessaloniki," Wikipedia (2013). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thessaloniki (accessed June 13, 2013).

[2] Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich. Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub; Apollos, 2002), 2.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Gospel & the End of Time : The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians : Includes Study Guide for Groups or Individuals, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 17.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians : An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham, England. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press; Intervarsity Press, 2009), 18.

[7] Stott, 18.This was unlinke Philippi, an inland city in Macedonia where a small community gathered only informally for prayer. See Acts 16.

[8] See the wonderful phrase “one new man” in Ephesians 2. God’s purpose was to unite Jew and Gentile in one family of faith and this indeed took place when the gospel came to ancient Thessalonica.

[9] G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, The Ivp New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 15.

[10] Morris, 19.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Fee, 6.

[13] Ibid., 4.

[14] Morris, 21. We know Paul was brought before a man named Gallio who was proconsul in Greek province Achaia. He was leading in the area around AD 52-53. A we know Paul served in Corinth for 18 months we can estimate he arrived into that City in the first part of AD 50. He would have written 1 Thessalonians just after this time.

[15] Ibid., 25, 26.

[16] Some of you may remember Harold Camping proclaiming to the world that all would end on May 21st 2011. If you must, see the brief wiki at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Camping and please move along quickly.

[17] REM, Its the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).

[18] The word eschatology is derived from the Greek words for last (eschaton) and word or study (the word logos). Taken together we use the word eschatology for the study of last things.

[19] Beale, 22, 23.

[20] Stuart Townend Keith Getty, In Christ Alone (Kingsway Music).

[21] Stott, 9, 10.Emphasis added. Stott’s colorful spelling of colourful indicates his use of the Queen’s English.