Paul began preaching the gospel in Macedonia somewhere around the year A.D. 50. After some success, he was forced to leave Philippi. He and his group journeyed west 100 miles to Thessalonica. After a short ministry there, they were again forced to leave (Acts 17:1-10). Probably less than a year later, Paul heard that the believers in Thessalonica were being persecuted. Paul wrote a letter to reassure the believers that their faith and sufferings were not in vain. As he writes to encourage them, he reviews his ministry and relationship with that church.
Trying to please God (verses 1-6)
Paul reminds them that he preached despite persecution: “You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (NRSV). Since the gospel always comes with opposition, the readers should not be surprised if they encounter difficulties as well.
“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” The ancient world had its share of traveling snake-oil salesmen, and whether people were accusing Paul or not, Paul defends himself against possible misunderstandings.
A critic might have said: Paul gave his sales pitch in Thessalonica, but only a few gullible people fell for it, and they had no money, so Paul left to try his luck somewhere else. He didn’t really care about the people who fell for his message. So Paul responds: Our time in Thessalonica was not a failure. We are not trying to trick anyone — we are serving God, delivering his message, and that’s what we did. We get beaten up for our gospel, but we keep preaching because that’s what God sent us to do.
“As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.” There is no evidence to support any accusation. Paul does not fit the pattern of a traveling trickster — there was no flattery, no self-promotion, nothing shady going on.
Working hard, helping others (verses 6-12)
Paul could have asked for some financial support, but he did not: “Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Although teachers were normally paid by their students, Paul did not ask for payment — he did not want people to question his motives (1 Cor. 9:12). He was as gentle as a woman taking care of a baby. He supplied their needs, but did not ask them to supply his. That is evidence of sincerity, and along with it, the truth of the gospel.
“So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” Paul cared for the people so much that he shared his life with them. (This may have been a cliché expressing friendship.)
“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” This is quite an achievement: Paul, Silas and Timothy could move to a strange city and quickly find jobs that supported them. This was part of Paul’s strategy: he did not want to be confused with the traveling speakers whose main motive was money.
“You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” He says this not to boast, but to forestall any accusations that would cast doubts on the gospel. This is the example he set for them to follow.
“As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” Fathers did not always deal with their children kindly, but Paul is appealing to the ideal: a father was supposed to help his children and encourage them to be good citizens.
What is a life that is “worthy” of God? Taken literally, this is an impossibly high standard. But this is motivational rhetoric, not a formula for earning salvation. It simply means, I urge you to live the way that characterizes God and his kingdom — the way of love. Live in a way that is appropriate for a child of God.
Accepting the word of God (verses 13-16)
In chapter 1, Paul thanked God for choosing the believers in Thessalonica. Now, he gives thanks that they believed the gospel: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” The word of God had begun to work in their lives.
What is the evidence that their faith was genuine? It was their willingness to endure persecution: “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews…” Paul draws attention to this example because he wants them to continue in it, to be faithful despite the persecution.
In the ancient world, people wanted the gods to give them good crops, good health, and good fortune. When people were suffering, it was assumed that they had offended the gods in some way. So when the believers in Thessalonica experienced difficulties, others would say: “Trusting in Jesus isn’t doing you any good, is it?”
So Paul says that persecutions are not proof that the gospel is false — God’s truth has always encountered opposition. The pattern began where the gospel began — in Judea. (Apparently Paul had already told them a little church history.) The unbelievers didn’t like the gospel there, either.
Paul then comments on the Jewish persecutors: They “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last”
These words are surprising — unlike anything Paul wrote anywhere else. They are anti-Semitic, some say, and an unfair condemnation of an entire ethnic group. But Paul is not condemning all Jews. He is referring only to the Judeans who killed Jesus and drove the early believers away (see Acts 7 for similar comments). Paul is not presenting a calm analysis of the place of Jews in God’s plan (for that, see Romans 9-11). Rather, his purpose is to strengthen the Thessalonian believers to remain true to their convictions. The context implies that a similar criticism could be said for the Macedonian persecutors.
Paul says that God’s wrath has come upon the Judeans. We do not know what is he referring to. Apparently God’s wrath can happen without making much of an impact on history. In some cases his wrath means only that he lets people continue doing the sins they want to do (Romans 1:18-32; John 3:18). It is difficult to know precisely what Paul means by the term.
Paul’s desire to see the Thessalonians (verses 17-20)
Paul reviews the history of his relationship with the people: “As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”
Paul does not say how he tried to return to Thessalonica, but the person who carried the letter could explain the details. It might have been risky to put them in writing, in case the letter was intercepted.
Paul explains that he takes pride in the Thessalonians: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” When Christ returns and assesses Paul’s ministry, he will praise work that had lasting results (1 Cor. 3:10-15). If all of his converts fell away, what would it say about his ministry?
This is emotion-laden rhetoric, not a statement about the way eternal rewards are given. Paul wants to assure the Thessalonians that they are important to him. If they are skeptical that Paul is motivated by love, then Paul explains another reason: This is what the Lord wants Paul to do, and Paul wants to do it for him.
Things to think about
- Do I know anyone who has been tricked into following a false religious message? How can I tell the difference between a deliberate fraud and an honest misunderstanding?
- Should all religious leaders work night and day to support themselves? (verse 9)
- How can I urge people to live a life “worthy of God” without being legalistic? (verse 12)
- Have I suffered because of the gospel, or was it my own fault? (verse 14)
- Is my hope and joy for the future centered on other people? (verse 19)
The Greeks had a word for it: Eκκλησία
The Greek word ekklesia comes from ek, meaning “from” or “out of,” and kaleo, meaning “to call.” So the roots of ekklesia mean “people who are called out.” Root meanings can sometimes shed light on an obscure word, but they do not determine what the word actually means (for example, consider the English word butterfly). A word’s meaning is based on the way the word is used, and that can change as the years roll by.
In ancient Greece, an ekklesia was the town council—citizens called out of their homes and into the amphitheater for a meeting (Acts 19:39 is an example). The people are not called out, as much as they are called together. “Assembly” is a good translation.
Ekklesia eventually became used for the church, the gathering of believers — but when Paul wrote his letters, that meaning was not yet common, so Paul had to specify which ekklesia he was writing to. He was not writing to the assembly of the Thessalonians — that would be the town council — he was writing to the assembly of those who were “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).
Author: Michael Morrison, 2008, 2013