Thessalonica was a large city of over 100,000 people and was the capital of Macedonia. It was a wealthy commercial center due to its location on a harbor. It was a diverse city religiously speaking, meaning it had “something” for everyone. It was a prominently pagan city and represented traditional Greek worship and philosophical thought, Roman imperial worship (Caesars are worshiped) and the city also housed a couple of temples dedicated to Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis. There was also a sizeable Jewish community in the city so naturally there was a synagogue as well. The Apostle Paul had planted the church of Thessalonica (as a result of preaching in the synagogues) but was forced out the city prematurely due to a riot that resulted because of Paul preaching the Gospel and he was not able to return (cf Acts 17).
The Church that Paul is writing to is a local congregation made up of a few converted Jews and many "Jesus believing former pagans". It is believed that this church was a predominantly Gentile congregation; so they were young in faith and unfamiliar with Jewish traditions and more specifically Christianity. Almost immediately after its establishment this young congregation faced persecution from both unbelieving Jews and Gentiles which was not uncommon at this time.
Paul’s reason for writing this epistle was to encourage this young congregation. He was unable to properly disciple this group of believers because of his premature departure so he may have been afraid that they would not stick with the faith during their intense persecution. Initially Paul had wanted to visit the believers of Thessalonica but he was hindered. Instead he sent his travel companion, the young pastor Timothy, and upon his return to Paul and he gave him the great news that all was well at the Church of Thessalonica. Timothy not only reported about their faithfulness in the midst of persecution but also that the church was in fact growing a midst the persecution.
Vs 1 – 2: "We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers."
Prayer is such a powerful tool and I think we as Christians don't utilize it nearly as often as we should. I am as guilty as the next person concerning neglect of prayer, but I know that this is one avenue that God has given us in keeping in communication with him. We, like the Apostle Paul, must be disciplined to maintain this line of communication. I often think God must be in heaven scratching his head in wonder as to how we must be disciplined to make time for him. We have to actually schedule a time to talk with our God (if time permits)! If you are anything like me I sometimes get so consumed in life that I forget to talk to the Creator the one who matters most in life. I forget!? I am perplexed as to how often I neglect my primary source of power simply because I either forget, don't want to or think I don't have the time.
The reality is I don't feel like praying every day. I sometimes don't make time to pray. I sometimes think prayer boring. Nevertheless I think it is an important and necessary part of my life. God constantly reminds me of the words and actions of Paul in this first part of Thessalonians. I'm sure when they were in prison for a crime they never committed the last thing they "felt" like doing was praying... But that's what they did. I'm sure when the mobs were surrounding them and beating them they didn't have the time to pray... But that's what they did. I am also sure that there were times when they would have rather been out doing something other than praying... But pray is what they did. WHY? Because it was their lifeline and they saw the value of prayer. That's where I want to be in my walk with the Lord.
Vs 4: "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,"
How is that for reality? For we KNOW that God has chosen you. Do you know this and believe it? God chose YOU!
People have problems with knowing that God chose them and not vice versa. Jesus says in John 15:16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you." God chose us unto salvation. He gave us the faith to believe. We are saved and redeemed! Now we are truly free! We have the freedom to turn our backs on sin. We are free to choose to do good works. We are free from the bondage of sin and Satan. Through God's sovereign grace I am chosen and truly free.
Vs 5 - 6: "And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit,"
The evidence of salvation in a person is a changed life. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that after they received the Gospel by word and through the power of the Holy Spirit they became imitators of them (Paul and his travel companions) and ultimately imitators of Jesus Christ. There are a number of times in the Bible where Paul tells his readers, "Imitate me". Most of the time he writes, "Imitate me and imitate the Lord." He actually equates the two, he essentially says, "If you imitate me, then you imitate Christ." I don't think Paul is exalting himself by saying these things. I think he was simply saying, "Do as I do because I am imitating Christ."
Vs 6 – 7: “for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
Affliction and joy; these are two words that you rarely see together today. If you do a study in the book of Acts you would see one common denominator throughout and that is joy in trials and persecutions. For example, the Apostles get a beating and they leave rejoicing because they were considered worthy of the cause, Another time Paul and Silas were singing in prison... Singing!? There are so many times that we read that the believers rejoiced after or during trials and persecution.
The early church has set a great example and precedence when it comes to having joy in the Lord in times of trial and persecution. We should also imitate the Thessalonians and no matter what we face, we would want to receive the word of God with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
Vs 8: “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.”
It is important to be part of a church that preaches the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately many churches today spend so much of their time, energy and resources trying not to be too "churchy". They want to be a "cool" and "hip" place to go. They want to be a place where people don't feel like they are in church. They don't want to be too preachy because it will not attract people. Some go so far as to eliminate words like sin, salvation and Hell because those are archaic, negative or "not relevant" in this postmodern society.
I think Jesus' plan for the Church was/is much simpler than what we have made it. We often think of the church as the building and forget that the Church is not necessarily a physical place but a gathering of fellow believers who set out to live and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I know I would rather serve in a church that is known as a body of believers who "sound forth the word of the Lord" instead of being a church consumed with building maintenance, marketing and "keeping up with the times” all the while neglecting the Word of God.
Vs 9 - 10: For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among 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, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come."”
This is another quality about the Thessalonians that I admire. They turned from idols to serve the "living and true God." They weren't star struck with royalty and celebrities. They didn't allow money or possessions to rule their lives. They had forsaken all of this for the living God.
Since the Thessalonians have turned from idols and worshiped the "living and true God" they now anticipated Jesus' return. They were living with the hope that Jesus would return soon and they anxiously awaited the day. I can understand how they felt. I look forward to Christ's return as well.
I know there are a lot of "theories" on how and when Christ will return. Theologians have argued for years about how and when Christ will return. We don't know when Jesus will return. God's word says, only God knows the day, the hour and the time. We get our boxers in a bunch arguing about when, where and how and I think we just need to live our lives as though Jesus may return any day.
Will there be a rapture? Will it be pre, mid or post trib? Will Jesus come back tomorrow? Will He be back today? I honestly don't know. I have actually stopped filling my mind with end time scenarios. All I know is Jesus will return some day (as the Bible says) and it will be a glorious day for the believer.
I have covered a lot of ground today so I have a few points to highlight for you to contemplate and apply.
- It's time to MAKE TIME and PRAY – Prayer is our lifeline to God. May we be men and women of prayer.
- God has chosen you by His grace. How awesome is that? God chose you! Yes, this does make you special and God praise worthy.
- Strive to be imitators of Christ; not only for our benefit but for his glory.
- Seek to be filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit in all circumstances of life.
- Don't worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will take care of itself. Live your life in anticipation of the Lord's return today and be ready.
Imagine for one moment that your life was so dedicated to Christ that you could honestly tell others to imitate all you do because you imitate Jesus Christ. What would that look like? How would this change the way you live your life? If you knew people were watching you and using you as an example what would you do different? What would I do different? Would I change the way I talk? Would I change the way I treat others? Would I change the way I drive? The list goes on...May we all strive to be imitators of Christ?