Overview: 1 Thessalonians


Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians This is most likely the earliest letter that we have from Paul. The backstory for it is found in the book of Acts. It is where Paul and his coworker Silas went to the ancient Greek city of Thessalonica. After just one month of telling people the good news about Jesus, a large number of Jewish and Greek people gave their allegiance to Jesus. They form the first church community there. But trouble was brewing. Paul’s announcement of the risen Jesus as the true Lord of the world led to suspicion. So the Christians in Thessalonica were eventually accused of defying Caesar, the Roman Emperor, when they said that there is another King: Jesus. This led to a persecution that got so intense Paul and Silas actually had to flee from the city. This was painful for them because they love the people there so much. This letter is Paul’s attempt to reconnect with the Christians in Thessalonica after he got a report from Timothy that they were doing more than okay; they were flourishing despite this intense persecution. He designed the letter to have two main movements. First is a celebration of their faithfulness to Jesus. Then he challenges them to keep growing as followers of Jesus. Then these two movements are surrounded by three prayers. The letter opens with a thanksgiving prayer. The two movements are linked together by a transitional prayer. Then the whole thing is concluded with a final prayer. It is a beautiful design. Paul opens by giving thanks and celebrating the Thessalonians’ faith, their love for others and their hope in Jesus, despite persecution He goes on to retell the story of their conversion, how they used to be idolatrous polytheists. They were living in a culture where all of life was permeated by institutions and practices that honored the Greek and Roman gods. Paul talks about how they turned away from those idols to serve the living and true God and that they are now waiting for the coming of God’s Son from heaven. In a city like Thessalonica, transferring your allegiance to the Creator God of Israel and to King Jesus came at a cost: isolation from your neighbors, hostility from your family… But for the Thessalonians, the overwhelming love of Jesus who died for them, and the hope of his return it made it all worth it. Paul then retells the story of his mission in Thessalonica and of the dear friendships he formed with the people. He uses really intimate metaphors here. They treated him like their child and he became like their mother and like their father. He says, we were happy to share with you not only the good news from God, but our very selves, because we came to dearly love you. Paul reminds us here that the essence of Christian leadership is not about power and having influence. It is about healthy relationships and humble, loving service. He reminds them that he never asked for money. He simply came to love and serve them in the name of Jesus. Paul moves on to reflect on their common persecution. Just like Jesus was rejected and killed by his own people, so now Paul is persecuted by his fellow Jews, and the Thessalonians are facing hostility from their Greek neighbors. Paul draws a strange comfort from knowing that, together, their sufferings are a way of participating in the story of Jesus’ own life and death. Paul then shares about the anguish he experienced when he heard of the hardships the Thessalonians had after he and Silas fled. So he sent Timothy to support them and see how they were doing. To his joy, Timothy discovered that they were going strong. They were faithful to Jesus. They were full of love for God and their neighbors. And they longed to see Paul as much as he longed to see them. Paul concludes with a prayer for endurance. What is cool is that he introduces here the topics he is going to address in the letter’s second half. He prays that God will grow their capacity to love, that he will strengthen their commitment to holiness as they fix their hope on the return of King Jesus He opens the letter’s second movement by challenging them to a life that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. This means, first of all, a serious commitment to holiness and sexual purity. In contrast to the promiscuous, sexually destructive culture around them, they are to follow Jesus’ teaching about experiencing the beauty and the power of sex within the haven of a committed marriage covenant relationship God takes sexual misbehavior seriously, Paul says. It dishonours and destroys people, their dignity. Following Jesus also means a commitment to loving and serving others. Paul instructs them that Christians should be known in the city as reliable people who work really hard, not just to make money but so that they can have resources to provide for themselves and to generously share with people who are in need. After this, Paul addresses a number of questions the Thessalonians had raised about the future hope of Jesus’ return. Some Christians in the church had recently died, most likely killed as martyrs. Their friends and family are wondering about their fate when Jesus returns. So Paul makes it clear that, despite their grief and loss, not even death can separate Christians from the love of Jesus. When he returns as king, he will call both the living and the dead to himself. Paul uses a really cool image here. He uses language that would normally describe how a city, subject to the Roman Caesar, would send out a delegation to welcome or meet his arrival. Paul then applies this imagery to the arrival of King Jesus. He, too, will be greeted by a delegation of his people who will go to meet the Lord in the air as they welcome and escort him back to this world where he will establish his kingdom of justice and peace. Paul then wants the Thessalonians to see how this hope should motivate faithfulness to Jesus. So, he pokes fun at the famous Roman propaganda that it is Caesar who brings peace and security. Of course, Rome’s peace came through violence, through enslaving their enemies and military occupation. Paul warns that Jesus will return as King one day and confront this kind of injustice. Followers of King Jesus should live in the present as if that future day is already here. Despite the night time of human evil around them, they should stay sober and awake as the light of God’s kingdom. Dawn is here on earth as it is in heaven. Paul closes all of these exhortations like he began, with a hopeful prayer that God would permeate their lives with his holiness that he would set them apart to be completely devoted and blameless until the return of King Jesus. First Thessalonians reminds us that, from the very beginning, following Jesus as king has produced a truly countercultural or holy way of life. This will sometimes generate suspicion and conflict among our neighbors. The response of Jesus’ followers to such hostility should always be love, meeting opposition with grace and generosity. This way of life is motivated by hope in the coming kingdom of Jesus that has already begun in his resurrection from the dead. So holiness, love and future hope: that is what 1 Thessalonians is all about.

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