Paul deeply cared about the church in Thessalonica.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20
Continuing to defend his credibility, Paul expressed his deep love for the church and his overwhelming joy and pride in all they have accomplished. Paul's anger toward the Jews who opposed his ministry, mentioned completely as an aside in this passage, has been shamefully used to justify violence against Jews in the 2,000 years since.
you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the word of God (2:13)
[Every week, usually on Thursday, I post ideas and questions for our Sunday morning Bible study. If this helps you get ready for Sunday morning, great!]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Overview of the Passage
Once again, I think Lifeway overcomplicated matters. Here is a simple overview of this week's passage and its purpose. Remember that Paul is in the midst of defending himself against those who were trying to damage his credibility to the Christians in Thessalonica.
Verse 13: You realized that our message was from God, not from us, and it is God working in you, not us. (Paul's opponents are really attacking God's credibility.)
Verses 14-16: You face the same opposition other churches have; God is upset with those who oppose you, not you. (Paul's opponents, now the church's opponents, are on God's "bad list" because they hinder the spread of the gospel.)
Verses 17-18: We wanted to come see you but were prevented by Satan. (Paul's opponents, who say Paul doesn't care about the church, are wrong.)
Verses 19-20: Paul considers the Thessalonian believers one of his greatest "accomplishments". (Again, Paul's opponents are simply wrong about Paul.)
The lesson's tagline, "A person's response to the gospel defines his or her future", is certainly true, but that's not at all what Paul was focused on.
With that, let's dive into some ways to teach and engage this passage.
1: The Power of Camaraderie
The word "comrade" (which we all associate with Russians in Cold War-era movies) comes from the old French word "camarade" which means "brotherhood or friendship". It adapted very well to military settings, which is why you might initially associate "camaraderie" with "brothers in arms".
In talking with people who have combat experience, I have been told how powerful it can be to be "in the trenches" or "in the foxhole" with someone. Defending one another, should-to-shoulder, absorbing actual battle scars, you build a relationship that is very, very strong.
I daresay that many of us in these Bible study groups do not have that experience. However, we still feel camaraderie with others. What have been situations in which you have felt a strong camaraderie with someone else(s)? What was that like? Examples include
a football team or a softball team
organizing a political protest with a group
going on a mission trip with a team
working with a group on some kind of disaster relief
volunteering with a group like Red Cross or SafeHomes
You're facing opposition, encountering challenges, overcoming obstacles, and doing that with a group of people. Those things tend to build camaraderie.
With that established, what is the power of camaraderie? How important is it? What happens when a group of people who don't have camaraderie face a big challenge?
[Aside: Building camaraderie in Sunday School and other small group Bible studies is important. Camaraderie is one of the reasons why we encourage our Bible study groups to engage in regular mission/evangelism projects. People don't build deep friendships in an hour on Sunday mornings. We need to work together -- particularly in difficult circumstances -- to begin to think of one another as "a friend who sticks closer than a brother".]
2: Opposition We Face as Churches
Here's a totally different idea. First Baptist Church has traditionally held a "socially privileged" position in Thomson, and people who have grown up in this church (or churches like ours) might do well for a hard dose of reality. What kinds of opposition do churches face in America today? What kinds of opposition are relatively new? What kinds of opposition are we being warned about in the near future?
There are several ways you could approach this.
Political -- are there things that our state or local governments are trying to prevent us from doing?
Social -- are there social norms or other social pressures that are trying to keep us from some aspect of our mission?
Perception -- what do people in our community think about our church, and how might that make our mission more difficult?
Internal -- are there things we do to ourselves (infighting, misplaced priorities, etc.) that keep us from our mission?
Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica about the opposition they were facing, namely that it proved that they were on the right track. And most importantly, the fact that they were accomplishing their mission in spite of their opposition meant that they would be a stronger church in the long run.
No one likes opposition, but facing opposition puts us in good company as a church, and we will grow stronger through it. In fact, facing opposition would be a good sign about what we're doing.
This Week's Big Idea: Antisemitism and Putin the Fascist
I know -- I'm getting real dark in a hurry. I'm not saying I even want you to bring this up in group discussion, but if it comes up, I want everyone to be able to speak rationally about it.
You know I like to touch on current events, and there is nothing more current than Putin's invasion of Ukraine. More than a few social commentators have picked up on Putin's bizarre justification of his invasion by saying that he wanted to "denazify" Ukraine -- digging into that claim reveals a connection with this week's passage (but not in the ways Paul would want!).
Let me start here: by demanding this war, Putin has proved he is no autocrat -- he is a fascist. There are so many resources explaining fascism; I'm going to take the easy way out and send you to Fascism - Wikipedia if you want to know more. Fascism combines the worst characteristics of autocracy with the worst characteristics of charismatic nationalism by giving one man all of that power and fury.
Fascism, particularly in its European expression, is highlighted by ultranationalism and totalitarianism.
If nationalism is the idea that your nation is great, ultranationalism is its extreme (and unhealthy) form. In ultranationalism, the idea is that there is a "greater" ("purer") nation that has been diluted by political, social, and ethnic diversity. A fascist ruler can tap into ultranationalism to "purge" that diversity (and what he's really doing is removing anyone who is different from him and might oppose him).
Totalitarianism is basically the opposite of liberal democracy, believing that strength is found in uniformity (not unity in diversity). Such a ruler will often tap into ultranationalism to purge diversity, and then pursue political "unity" in order to assume complete control. That kind of unity destroys all competing social or ethical values, which he achieves through social indoctrination and propaganda.
What do Jews have to do with this? Well, when things go wrong, leaders need a scapegoat, and Jews have fit that bill since the Roman Empire (this short pamphlet by the Anti-Defamation League offers a very reasonable and readable summary of the history of Antisemitism). Jews have been accused of everything from making a deal with the devil to survive the Black Plague to killing Christian children for an ingredient in their Passover meals.
Historic animosity between Jews and Christians comes to mind (and we will talk about that with respect to our passage), but even in places where the population is not Christian, leaders could still quickly stir up resentment against Jews. How? Appealing to envy and xenophobia. Jews can be painted as "different" -- distinct values and traditions, tight-knit communities (and facial characteristics that could be caricatured on propaganda). And Jews have been successful in the modern world, both academically and financially (one of my favorite statistics of all time: 22% of every Nobel prize awarded in its history (every field) has been awarded to someone of at least half-Jewish descent. That statistic is amazing when you realize that a fraction of a percent of the world's population is Jewish.)
Hitler tapped into that, but he was not the first (which is why it worked). As a fascist, Hitler rejected diversity, democracy, free market capitalism, and values that promoted freedom. He blamed those things for Germany's hardships post-WWI (and enough people believed him to allow him to create a fascist state) -- and then he blamed a secret society of powerful Jews for manipulating those conditions for the purpose of humiliating Germans. He quickly recruited an "army" of Germans who rounded up Jews and took all of their possessions. In one of the most amazing lies ever (that makes me pessimistic about human reasonability), Hitler justified the Holocaust by blaming WWII on the Jews (!!). He told his people that Jews had orchestrated the war for their own financial benefit, and so the Jews must be eliminated.
Putin has not-so-subtly hinted at those same things to justify his war to his people. When he says "denazify", he is really saying that the Jews are the "real" Nazis. He means that the hard times that Russia has faced of late (post USSR) can be blamed on liberal democracies and their corrosive values (all influenced by a shadowy Jewish cabal that is out to destroy Russian Christianity and other things; they have accused Zelenskyy of hiding his Jewish ancestry as part of a plot to steal power in Ukraine and oppress the good Russian Ukrainians, which Putin must defend). It's disturbingly reminiscent of the lies told in the 1930s. And it's absurd!
(Aside: it should not surprise any of us that people believe absurd things all the time. You might have heard that the Cardiff Philharmonic cancelled Tchaikovsky, even though Tchaikovsky represents the very height of Western influence in Russia. You might have heard that a Russian cocktail bar in NYC was barricaded, even though some of their employees are Ukrainian. And this just stirs up other disturbing events from our recent past. You remember violence against Chinese Americans when COVID hit. And violence against Muslim Americans after 9/11. And on and on.)
So what's my point? Why has it been so easy for European fascists to stir up resentment and anger against Jews?
It comes back to a blatant manipulation of what Paul says in our passage this week: "the Jews killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us". They twist that to mean that all Jews of all time are responsible for the death of Jesus and the persecution of the Christian church and are the enemies of God's "true" people.
Can you identify the logical fallacy in that conclusion? Was Paul talking about all Jews of all time or a specific group of Jewish zealots (as Paul himself was once)? I want to make sure that when you get to that part of the lesson, you make it clear what Paul was saying. If you have any questions about Paul's attitude toward his fellow Jews, read Romans 9.
[Aside: let me issue two reminders that I should not have to issue -- (1) Christians are not to use violence to achieve our goal of advancing God's kingdom. Ever. (2) Christians are to reach out to and show Christian love to all people, regardless of how different they are from us or how much they want to persecute us. Don't let yourself be manipulated by someone else's attempt to stir up prejudice in you.]
Part 1: Received (1 Thessalonians 2:13-14)
13 This is why we constantly thank God, because when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the word of God, which also works effectively in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, since you have also suffered the same things from people of your own country, just as they did from the Jews
Remember where we are in the structure of the letter. Paul is still defending his credibility here. It would do Paul no good to launch into settling disputes about doctrine if the people didn't consider him credible!
In verse 13, he reminds the Thessalonians that when they first heard Paul's message, they believed it was a message from God. The message hasn't changed, so any attack on Paul's credibility is really an attack on God.
How did they know it was a message from God? Because they saw the resulting power of God working in them. This goes hand-in-hand with our last discussion -- how do you know if you are a Christian?
As far as I'm concerned, this opens up a great topic: how do we know the Bible is the Word of God? Today, we believe that the Bible (which includes Paul's letters) is the Word of God just in the same way these church members accepted what Paul had to say. Why do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God?
There are a lot of competing sources of ultimate truth out there (the Quran and Book of Mormon come to mind) -- how do we know the Bible is the right one?
I'm going to let some other really good communicators answer this for me. Let's start with this great little video summarizing what the Bible is:
And here are three short entries answering the question in different ways:
The long and short is this: the Bible claims to be the Word of God, and it has proven utterly trustworthy in everything it has said. And the deeper our relationship grows with God, the more this book "resonates" with our souls.
Paul was tapping into that with his audience. The Holy Spirit "resonated" with their spirits when they heard Paul's message, and they believed. The spiritual transformation that happened with their salvation internally proved to them that Paul wasn't talking out of his head, he was passing along a message given to him by God.
That would be the ultimate test of credibility, but Paul has more. The changes brought about by their salvation has led them to behave in ways that would otherwise be strange to them -- behaviors that have brought about the same opposition faced by other Christians in other parts of the world. "What you are facing is common with other Christians, therefore you should be encouraged to be in their boat."
What is Paul talking about? You can get this all from the Book of Acts. We studied this a few years ago, and I have some of those lessons online:
You might particularly consider:
In summary, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted to shut down the Christian movement because they rejected the blasphemous idea that Jesus was their Messiah. Paul, who had been one of their agents of wrath against Christians, found out that Jesus was (as it turns out) the Messiah after all:
Paul's conversion to Christianity just made the Jewish leaders all the angrier, and they persecuted the Christians all the more. This (just fyi) was one of the tools God used to force the Christians to leave their Jewish bubble and take the gospel to the nations as He intended. Paul's mission to Thessalonica was one of the outcomes of the persecution Christian churches faced in Jerusalem.
But here's Paul's point -- just as the earliest Jewish Christians faced persecution from their countrymen the Jews, so you Gentile Christians face persecution from your countrymen the Macedonians (which included at least some Jews). Why? What we said last week --
This is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:19-20)
Satan is the enemy of everything good God does and manipulates people into opposing those who advance the kingdom of God --
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force (i.e., trying to plunder it or manipulate it for their own advantage). (Matt 11:12)
(Satan can use the tools of prejudice and fear against anyone by anyone, including Christians and Jews.)
I'll ask the same questions I asked last week: what evidence do you see of the power of God at work in you? What changes have you observed in your life since becoming a Christian?
To those I'll add a third: what opposition are you willing to face for the name of Jesus?
Paul sees the fact that the Thessalonians are willing to endure persecution as proof of their transformation (and further proof that Paul's message really was from God).
Part 2: Rejected (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16)
15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us. They displease God and are hostile to everyone, 16 by keeping us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. As a result, they are constantly filling up their sins to the limit, and wrath has overtaken them at last.
Frankly, this was a weird place to divide this passage. Paul is describing the Jews he mentioned in verse 14, and this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the Thessalonian church at all! They are suffering from their countrymen, not the Jews! This verse is practically an aside.
Paul was a passionate writer (I wonder if it's easier to get sidetracked like this when you're dictating a letter). Every once in a while, you'll be reading one of Paul's letters and it will seem that he goes off on a tangent. That's what happened here. Paul clearly had a rough time with the Jews in Thessalonica:
But the Jews became jealous, and they brought together some wicked men from the marketplace, formed a mob, and started a riot in [Thessalonica]. (Acts 17:5)
But when the Jews from Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul at Berea, they came there too, agitating and upsetting the crowds. (Acts 17:13)
That particular group really upset Paul. I wouldn't be surprised if Paul knew some of them from his own days as a Jewish zealot.
Paul has two competing feelings in play:
He has a very deep desire for all Jews to realize that their Messiah has come, and the only way they can be right with God is through Jesus. This is a longing for them to focus their zeal rightly and also a love for them as his extended family.
He has a real frustration with the particular Jews who have resorted to violence against Christians. They were unable to stand up against Paul in reasoned debate, and so they decided to use "bigger stick" debate tactics.
(Again, to make this clear, the fact that people have appealed to Paul's words to justify violence against Jews proves their utter ignorance of what Paul was saying.)
Paul's words might seem harsh, but remember that Jesus had already said this in Matthew 23:
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors’ sins!
33 “Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell? 34 This is why I am sending you prophets, sages, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 So all the righteous blood shed on the earth will be charged to you, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all these things will come on this generation.
Yikes! So, Paul saw Jewish violence against the church as them continuing to fill up this "measure of your ancestors' sins".
But here's a lesson I think we can take from these verses: those Jews thought they were obeying God when in actuality they were opposing God. I can't think of anything more horrifying than to realize that your actions were actually accomplishing the very opposite of what you thought you were intending. Do any movies or books come to mind in which a character realizes he/she has been completely wrong? (My favorite such moment in captured in the picture above -- can you identify the movie?)
Let's apply this to ourselves. Can we, through action (or inaction) or attitude, accomplish the opposite of what God put us here for?
Of course we can. And we need to be constantly aware of this, constantly evaluating our hearts for that subtle manipulation that takes us away from God's mission.
Part 3: Focused (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)
17 But as for us, brothers and sisters, after we were forced to leave you for a short time (in person, not in heart), we greatly desired and made every effort to return and see you face to face. 18 So we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For who is our hope or joy or crown of boasting in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Indeed you are our glory and joy!
And then Paul ends with a direct repudiation of one of the accusations against him -- that he didn't come back to check on the Thessalonians because he didn't really care about them. It's just not true. Paul (and his companions) did want to see them. Did want to visit them. But they were prevented from doing so.
This begs the question of how Satan did this. Paul doesn't say. The word for "hindered" is the word used of the military practice of destroying a road. This makes me think of the reason why Paul ended up in Macedonia in the first place:
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia; they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. (Acts 16)
How did Paul know?? When we face opportunity or opposition, it can be one of four things:
God is opening a door for us
God is closing a door for us
Satan is trying to trick us
Satan is trying to oppose us
(But remember that Satan can only do what God allows him to do; that means we can view Satan's actions as a test allowed by God)
Paul was sure that God was directing him into Macedonia in the first place, and he was sure that Satan was keeping him from returning to Thessalonica. I would love to be that sure about those things, wouldn't you? Weel, if there were simple, "foolproof" tests, Satan wouldn't be a very good deceiver. As it is, prayer and Bible study are the tools God has given us to discern the steps He wants us to take.
But back to the passage. 😊 (did I say that Paul could get sidetracked?)
I hope you picked up on the repeated use of "family language" in this chapter. Paul wants the church to realize that he thinks of them as family -- he cares that much about them. In verse 7, he likened his attitude toward them as that of a wetnurse. Paul cares.
(Aside on Greek translation: I have time to address this here. Yes, the phrase "brothers and sisters" is just the plural of the Greek word for brother (adelphos/adelphoi), and a number of translations just say "brothers" here. But, adelphoi (plural) also was used to refer to mixed groups of brothers and sisters (there wasn't a separate noun for that group). Paul did intend both men and women to be his audience.)
But let's camp out on verses 19-20 -- why would Paul talk about boasting and crowns? It's even strange, right? If I went to somebody I led to salvation and said, "I'm going to parade you in front of me when I walk through those pearly gates and say 'Jesus, didn't I do good?'" that just sounds wrong in every possible way, doesn't it?
I'll leave off talking about crowns for below, so let's settle on what Paul is saying. Consider these other verses for context:
Indeed, this is our boast: The testimony of our conscience is that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you, with godly sincerity and purity, not by human wisdom but by God’s grace. (2 Cor 1:12)
We are not boasting beyond measure about other people’s labors. On the contrary, we have the hope that as your faith increases, our area of ministry will be greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel to the regions beyond you without boasting about what has already been done in someone else’s area of ministry. (2 Cor 10:15-16)
Do everything without grumbling and arguing, ... Then I can boast in the day of Christ that I didn’t run or labor for nothing. (Phil 2:14, 16)
Paul uses "boast" both positively and negatively. When he uses it positively, it's with the assumption of this truth: "So let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (2 Cor 10:17) Positive "boasting" is actually pointing people to Jesus. When Paul "boasts" about finishing his race well, he's actually talking about the proof of what Jesus accomplished through his ministry.
1 Corinthians 9 might be the best description (it's a quick read). In it, Paul defends his right to earn a living through church leadership, but he doesn't demand payment from churches in order that no one can say he's just in it for the money (sound familiar?). And then he says this:
What then is my reward? To preach the gospel and offer it free of charge and not make full use of my rights in the gospel. (v. 18)
I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. (vv. 22-23)
And that leads him into his famous "Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize?" (v. 24) His point is that he wants to be as committed to his life's purpose as any runner is to training for a race. But if his life is a "race", then what would be his "prize" for finishing well?
It's not a crown. It's the lives changed through the gospel in his ministry. Paul gets the reward, but Jesus gets the credit. Just like with salvation.
Paul is saying this to the Thessalonians to build them up -- the good that has happened through them is proof that God has blessed Paul's message. (Roundabout, it also builds Paul's credibility.)
Lifeway's recommended discussion for this section is bizarre to me. Paul's use of "leave" and "return" has nothing to do the believer's tendency to stray from Jesus or our need to stay focused on Jesus. (Those things are true, but that's not what Paul was talking about.) The best I can think to apply these words to us today is to go to Jesus' parables in Matthew 24/25:
Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give them food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom the master finds doing his job when he comes. (24:45-46)
When Jesus comes, and we don't know when that is, what will He find us doing? Will we be a "crown of boasting" for our parents/teachers/pastors, or will we be a cause of shame?
I want the Christians who mentored me to find me a source of joy and boasting just as this church was to Paul.
Closing Thoughts: Crowns in Heaven
There's a running joke in churches -- when someone has spent time with a difficult person, we say that they have "earned another jewel in their crown". If we understand what that means, that's fine. It's a joke. But some people think of this as literal truth, as in when they get to heaven, they expect to see people walking around with massive crowns covered with jewels. Or, more commonly, they're going to get their crown and then lay it at the feet of Jesus.
Let me be clear about this. We (Christians) are not getting physical crowns of any kind in heaven. Every time Paul speaks about a "crown" (as above), it's metaphorical. Here's the list of every reference:
1 Corinthians 9:25 -- Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown.
Philippians 4:1 -- So then, my dearly loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my joy and crown, in this manner stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.
1 Thessalonians 2:19 -- For who is our hope or joy or crown of boasting in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?
2 Timothy 2:5 -- Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
2 Timothy 4:8 -- There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing.
The greatest "reward" we can receive is salvation, and salvation is nothing we have earned.
But Paul uses this language because he knows that two Christians can live lives with very different impact. In the parables I mentioned above from Matthew 24/25, Jesus says that the person who lives a life of greater impact will get this "reward":
‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy.’ (25:21)
We don't know what that means (other than that life in heaven will be an extension of life on earth, in a way). But there will be nothing to stir up envy or jealousy in heaven!
And those crowns that are placed at the feet of Jesus? Those come from the 24 elders (Rev 4). If those are specific people, then they aren't us! And if the elders are metaphorical representatives, then the crowns are metaphorical. Either way, we are given no indication that we will receive a crown when we get to heaven that we will then give to Jesus. What's Jesus going to do with a pile of a billion crowns, anyway?