Scripture and the Church

First Thessalonians: The Commendable at Thessalonica

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to persist in three things for which they had quickly become well known.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part two of a series. Read part one.

The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to persist in three things for which they had quickly become well known.

As we began this series, we saw that the fledgling church at Thessalonica faced many of the same forms of pressure and opposition that Christians who are true to the Word of God face in our own time. Roughly two years after his first visit, when the new converts had to send Paul and Silas out of the city to protect them from likely death, the apostle is writing his first letter to them. In the intervening time he has heard much about them. And so Paul writes to exhort these new believers by focusing first on that which is commendable among them, and secondly on that which is in urgent need of correction.

As we continue, let us look at the things that the Holy Spirit through His inspired writer found commendable among the Thessalonians.

A Truly Regenerated People

The most commendable thing about this church was that they were, by the grace of God, a truly regenerated people. The apostle speaks of this in the opening five verses of chapter one:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father, knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. For our Gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.

The preached Word of God had been living and powerful at Thessalonica. It had produced a small but growing body of people who sought to be faithful to the Lord, who were motivated by love, and maintained their hope in Christ despite opposition. Through these things the Holy Spirit had given them great assurance of their salvation, and great assurance of the truth of the Word of God. These truths had been especially driven home to them when they saw how Paul and Silas had responded to the fierce opposition that they experienced while they were among them. The Thessalonian believers were not merely outward professors with no inward life - they were truly regenerated saints of God, and their openly visible embrace of the truth of Gospel powerfully demonstrated this.

A Witnessing People

The second commendable thing about this church was that they were a witnessing people. Notice what we find beginning at chapter 1, verse 6:

And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

In order to understand the importance of these verses, we need to to understand the geography of the area around Thessalonica. In verse 8, Paul mentions Macedonia and Achaia. And he also is speaking of regions beyond those areas.

I have never visited Thessalonica or that region, but people who have been there tell me that to get from Thessalonica through Macedonia and into Achaia requires that you cross two very difficult mountain ranges. Even in the 21st century, traveling from what was known in New Testament times as the city of Thessalonica into the region of Achaia by road is a difficult, time-consuming journey. It is not the kind of travel one would want to undertake in anything but the best weather.

But let us think back to the time when the Apostle Paul was writing: no automobiles, mostly cart traffic and foot traffic, and a matter of days, not hours, to make the journey. It is remarkable that the testimony of this small band of believers in Thessalonica would have spread.

But spread it did. Paul said, verse 8, that the Word has spread with such force and effect that it is as though when we come into these other regions, and into their cities, we do not need to say anything. Why? Because the people there already know that people in Thessalonica have turned from pagan idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for the return of Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead and who has delivered them from the wrath to come. The church at Thessalonica had this powerful testimony.

A Persecuted But Persevering People

The third commendable fact about this church was that they had endured persecution and remained faithful. They were a persecuted people. Let me call your attention to First Thessalonians chapter 2, beginning at verse 13:

For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe. For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.

The Thessalonian believers, like the believers at Ephesus, like the believers at Colossae, and believers in other parts of the Roman Empire, had experienced persecution because of two forces that were against them.

First of all, they were immersed in a pagan culture. These believers were a small minority, a small remnant of God's people, among a vastly pagan majority - an often hostile majority. They experienced persecution from their own countrymen.

Secondly there were, as we have already noted, Jews in the region whose forebears had been resettled in Macedonia in previous generations. Their ancestors had been taking as captives from Palestine to Babylon because of God's judgment on Israel's spiritual adultery. Some of these Jews in later generations became believers in Christ. But others of them became persecutors of the church and false teachers, telling people that they needed to keep the Jewish ceremonial law and practice circumcision in addition to believing on Christ in order to be saved. And so the Thessalonian believers and their brothers and sisters in other churches of that region experienced two kinds of persecution from two different sources - from Jews and from Gentiles. And yet, Paul says, you have endured.

The Thessalonian believers were a faithful church. Would to God that the same three commendations could be made to the vast majority of self-identified evangelical churches today - for genuine faith, bold witness, and endurance under persecution - but sadly most parts of the present-day visible church do not measure up to this Biblical standard.

But while there was much to be commended among the Thessalonian believers, there were also ways of thinking and living that urgently required correction. We find many parallels once again between the first-century Thessalonian situation and the church today. We shall turn to these issues as we continue.

 

Next: The Correctable at Thessalonica

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