As one of Paul’s earliest letters, if not the earliest, written around A.D. 51, 1 Thessalonians unveils the vibrant faith and severe struggles of Jesus’ followers who readily embraced the message and made it their own (Acts 17:1-9). In a short time, at most, a matter of months, these Macedonians learned from Paul the good news of Christ. Luke’s comment about the Bereans (Acts 17:11) should not be taken as a slight against the Thessalonians, but as a comment about the resistance of the gospel among the Jews, who forced Paul to flee the city. His concern for those who remained occasioned his writing, and his letter was likely sent, by the hands of Timothy (3:1-5), not long after his departure.
1:1. Greeting. Never the attention hog, Paul joins Silvanus, the Greek form of Silas, and Timothy to himself in the greeting. These two accompanied him to Thessalonica when he first preached the gospel there. Though he is the true author of the letter, he is quick to include others in his labors and recognize their contributions. He writes to the church of the Thessalonians, the modifying phrase indicating those who composed the Christian community there. Church is used in the local sense of the disciples in that location; it is used again in the letter only in 2:14, in the same sense, but in the plural. The term denotes those people whose conversion to Christ has united them together in perpetual assembly around their Lord, whether or not in actual meeting. Their most important location, however, is not Thessalonica, but in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is where their true identity and loyalty lie, as well as their sphere of life and operation. With a change of a few letters, the Greek “greeting” becomes Paul’s grace, which he considers the proper salutation, since it captures the essence of his faith, joined to the standard Jewish greeting, peace, now to be seen as that restoration of relationship with God in Christ.
1:2-5. Thanksgiving. With the exception of Galatians, Paul always includes a prayer of thanksgiving for his readers, a standard feature of letters in his day, though his prayers are always situation appropriate, reflecting his knowledge of them, and, together with the greetings, often include hints of his letters’ contents. His thanksgiving here includes all of the saints, and indicates his intense prayer life from the constant mention he makes of them in the presence of our God and Father. Paul is keenly conscious of his whole life before God and of prayer as the privilege of approaching God’s presence. The faith-love-hope triad (also in 5:8) is to become a favorite of Paul’s (see 1 Corinthians 13:13) and serves here to describe the liveliness of the Thessalonians’ spirituality, which NLT translates as “your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have.” They have not let their sufferings prevent them from dedicated effort in the Kingdom.
As good news, the gospel is not only content that brings joy (v. 6), but message, not a mere body of teaching, but a communication. (Its use for a New Testament book is a later development, but as a term that also encompasses the full life in Christ [see Galatians 1:7], the faithful may find it far superior to the ambiguous “Christianity.”) Thus, the gospel is not to be defended as much as publicly proclaimed (2:2). Its arrival in Thessalonica came not merely in words, which would constitute it as a human message, but in power and in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit uses the words powerfully to effect conversion and change and produce deep conviction. Jesus also served and taught “in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:14). More happens than the sound of words and an intellectual acceptance or rejection. This conviction on the Thessalonians’ part evidenced their election, that he has chosen you. This evidence provides certainty for Paul, so he can say, we know. So the readers can also recall and know how this gospel acts in their midst, just as they knew the character of the messengers who came to help them (see 2:3-12). Paul appeals repeatedly in this letter to what they know (1:5; 2:1, 2, 5, 11; 3:3, 4; 4:2; 5:2) or should know (4:4). They should not be ignorant or “uninformed” as followers of Christ who hope in his coming (4:13).
1:6-10. From Imitators to Examples. Recognizing the character of Paul and his companions, the Thessalonians set about imitating them, for Paul, as a servant of God, often put himself forward as an example (2 Thessalonians 3:9). Imitation of Paul was imitation of the Lord, since Paul imitated Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). Imitation does not indicate an inferior product or a disingenuous mimicking, but the full and living reproduction in one person of the divine life witnessed in another. Not only is power associated with the Spirit, but joy as well, since he produces it through the message preached. Jesus also rejoiced in the Spirit, and it is fitting that his followers do so as well (Luke 10:21). The great affliction they endured for their faith did nothing to hamper their joy. Because of that joy and conviction in the midst of severe suffering, their imitation became an example. Their influence reached all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia, in their own province and the next, for the reports of their faith in God spread quickly, so much so that in every place where Christians met their faithfulness was a topic of discussion and a motive of encouragement.
The welcome they gave the evangelists became evident in their conversion, how you turned to God from idols. This full reorientation of perspective, loyalty, and commitment is the common Christian experience, regardless of the nature of the idols, be they wood or willfulness, metal or mental. To serve an idol is easy, since it represents man’s own desires and passions; the challenge now is to serve the living and true God, whose will is unmistakable, whose judgment is infallible, whose revelation cannot be disputed.
Though a sharp eschatological sense is often considered a major aspect of early Christian experience, the apostles and prophets continue, through Scripture, to proclaim the coming of Christ as a basic teaching that should orient every disciple in his daily walk, to wait for his Son from heaven. Service to God is performed in the light of Jesus’ return. Faithfulness makes sense only because Jesus will usher all into judgment. Because he was raised from the dead, his followers await the same destiny. So, although we live in the present, we look forward to seeing our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our deliverer from the coming wrath.