Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Sometimes life throws you into its own deep end, but Jesus is always with us.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In this introduction to 1 Thessalonians, we learn that a church plant was put in a tough spot when Paul was chased out of town after only three weeks. But not only did they survive the persecution, they developed a regional reputation for following Jesus in spite of opposition. Paul commended them for their faithfulness and encouraged them to stick to it.
Because our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full assurance. (1:5)
[Thinking of the bravery of the Ukrainians defending their homeland reminded me of this iconic picture from Tiananmen Square of an ordinary person taking a stand. Do we, as Christians, have the bravery to stand up for Jesus in our culture today?]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Being Thrown into the Deep End
I actually had this happen to me, so I don't use the phrase lightly. I was young enough that the memories are hazy. We had visited someone with a pool (I grew up in Houston, FYI), and I was not a confident swimmer yet. I was being stubborn about trying to swim, so one of the adults picked me up and jumped with me into the deep end. I sank more than swam, so the experiment failed and there was much consternation. Perhaps some raised voices.
[Were you ever literally thrown into the deep end? Or, do you remember doing that to a (poor, innocent, helpless, not-at-all-annoying) child?]
We're not here to talk about swimming. But there a lot of adult-equivalents to "being thrown into the deep end". You've experienced them! Think about --
Becoming a parent for the first time
Becoming a parent of a teenager for the first time
Getting a smartphone
Starting a new job that didn't come with much training
Taking on a new ministry at church
Discovering social media
No amount of training could really prepare you for what was coming (and any training you got probably seemed like "drinking out of a fire hydrant").
So, that's my idea for an opening discussion -- what was a time in your life when you felt like you were thrown into the deep end? What kind of preparation did you have? How did it turn out? Looking back, what would have liked to have done differently?
Some of you might say that being thrown into the deep end is the best way to learn quickly ("sink or swim"). I might agree, but only if you have access to proper support.
One way or another, that scenario is the basis for 1 Thessalonians. For reasons that we will get to, Paul was forced to leave a church plant after only three weeks, and they had to navigate being a new Christian in a hostile city with no established leadership and no written Bible for reference. That's being thrown into the deep end.
But they made it! And when Paul checked in with them, they made the most of their communication. Let's learn about the letters to the Thessalonians!
This Week's Big Idea: Introduction to Thessalonians!
The modern city is named Thessaloniki. The city was founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals in a strategically important location. It has a large, natural (and well-protected) harbor, and it is at the intersection of two ancient roads -- an east-west road that ran to Byzantium, and a north-south road that went to the Danube. In not very long, it was a critical commercial center for Greece (practically as important as Corinth). It was the capital of Macedonia for the Roman Empire. Here are some important tidbits:
It was a large city -- larger than Philippi
It was cosmopolitan -- attracting traders from all over the empire
It was "free" -- not having a garrison, but there were Roman "politarchs" present
It was diverse, both in ethnicity and the religions brought
Most of the ancient city is buried under the modern city, meaning it cannot be excavated. But archeologists have found a marketplace ("forum"), a stadium, and a theater ("odeum").
About 1 Thessalonians
The scenario of our letter is a part of Paul's Second Missionary Journey. We read about Paul's visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17. Over the course of three Sabbaths, he persuaded some Jews, a large number of God-fearing Greeks, and a number of prominent women that Jesus is the Christ. This made the Jews jealous, so they brought some of the new Christians to the forum with this famous accusation:
“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here too, 7 and Jason has welcomed them. They are all acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king—Jesus.”
One theory is that because Thessalonica was a "free city", this accusation caused such an uproar because it could result in Roman intervention.
[Hey nerds: what's the context of this exchange?
VADER: Perhaps you think you're being treated unfairly.
VADER: Good. It would be unfortunate if I had to leave a garrison here.]
Anyway, that night, the new church sent Paul and Silas on to Berea (for their protection). The Jews followed them there and caused more trouble. Paul went on to Athens, and Silas and Timothy remained in Berea. (Paul was a lightning rod for the Jews.) After Paul had time to establish a church in Athens, he went on to Corinth, where Silas and Timothy caught up with him (Acts 18:5).
1 Thessalonians gives us some additional insight -- Timothy had tried to catch up with Paul in Athens, but Paul sent him to Thessalonica to help the young church. Timothy then brought a good report from Thessalonica to Corinth, where Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica with this first letter.
Acts 18:12 mentions that Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia. Wouldn't you know it, but archeologists found an inscription that dates this to around 50 AD. That would make this one of Paul's earliest letters. (You might remember from our study of Galatians that Paul wrote Galatians during his First Missionary Journey (47/48 AD), making 1 Thessalonians Paul's second-oldest letter that we still have.)
In this letter, Paul addressed the things that seemed to be the most pressing for the new Christians in Thessalonica --
Accusations that Paul didn't really care about the church
How to handle persecution
How Christian living compared with pagan living
Some concerns related to the return of Christ
Paul's letters are so intricate and well written that after careful study, scholars can find multiple ways that Paul may have intended his letter to be structured. It doesn't change the meaning of the letter -- it just shows how Christians can keep finding more when they read Paul. 1 Thessalonians is short enough that I can show you what I mean:
Here's one outline of the letter:
You Are a Model of Faith (1:1-10)
Remember Our Model of Leadership (2:1-16)
We Want to See You Again (2:17-3:13)
Remember Our Teachings about Christian Living (4:1-12)
How to Handle the Second Coming (4:13-5:11)
Final Blast of Instructions (5:12-28)
And here's another:
Thanksgiving for Thessalonian's Faith (1:1-10)
Defense of Paul's Ministry and Absence (2:1-3:13)
Summary of Teachings under Question (4:1-5:22)
Guidelines for Sexual Conduct (4:1-12)
Guidelines for Understanding Christ's Return (4:13-5:11)
Guidelines for Life and Worship (5:12-22)
And here's yet another:
So, there you go! Paul wanted to encourage a young church who was doing very well in spite of some non-ideal circumstances. We, too, can take heart from this letter, knowing that we don't have to be well-trained "experts" to be an effective church of Jesus Christ.
[We will get to the second letter in a few weeks. If they had had more time with Paul, they probably wouldn't have needed the second letter. But church members had more questions. I'm sure you can relate!]
Part 1: Partnership (1 Thessalonians 1:1)
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy: To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace.
This is a standard greeting from Paul. Every one of Paul's letters starts this way. But in some other letters, Paul adds some explanation. The fact that he doesn't here suggests that he didn't need to. He had a good relationship with the church, and they would take what he wrote at face value.
Aside: About Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy
The early church cannot be understood apart from Paul's testimony. We covered that in a lot more detail when we introduced him in Acts 9:
He was a very zealous Jew who traveled as a missionary for Judaism and was given authority to imprison Christians he found. And then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and everything changed. His great zeal turned him from a missionary for Judaism to one for Christianity. The Holy Spirit appointed Paul (and Barnabas) as the first Christian missionaries (in the modern church sense; Acts 13:2).
"Silas" and "Silvanus" are different spelling of the same name (apparently from the Hebrew name "Saul"). Silas first comes to prominence in Acts 15, when he was chosen to accompany Paul and Barnabas with the letter from the Jerusalem Council to Antioch. While in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas had their famous falling out, and Paul took Silas with him on the Second Missionary Journey. He was imprisoned with Paul in Philippi, where it was discovered that both he and Paul were Roman citizens. From Philippi, Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica, where our story picks up.
This isn't the end of his story, though! In 1 Peter 5, we learn that Silas later traveled with Peter on his mission to Pontus and Cappadocia, serving as Peter's scribe. That's a pretty good resume, don't you think! (Is he the New Testament Robert Horry? A little NBA reference for you. 🏀)
We covered him in more detail in the letter of 1 Timothy:
Timothy likely came to faith in Christ when Paul preached in Lystra (Asia Minor) during the First Missionary Journey, and then he joined Paul on the Second Missionary Journey. He is not mentioned in the Philippi events, so perhaps he was too young to be noticed by the Romans. (His youth apparently made it hard for some churches to take him seriously! 1 Tim 4:12.)
The point is that all three of these men had worked together to establish and support the church in Thessalonica.
Back to the letter.
This was written to the "church" in Thessalonica. This was the standard word for an assembly; it meant "called out ones". Importantly, this was the same word the Septuagint used for "Israel" (when they were being called God's covenant people).
Finally, the "in" makes it clear that Paul and Silas and Timothy were not really responsible for the church; rather, God Himself put them together. Why no mention of the Holy Spirit here? Paul never includes the Holy Spirit in this part of his greeting. I think this gets into a deep theological matter that I'm not qualified to explain. Paul mentions the Holy Spirit in 1:5 and 1:6, so he's not minimizing the role of the Holy Spirit. Rather, perhaps we can say that in Paul's mind, the church was established by the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit. Paul didn't need to mention the Spirit in verse 1 because the Spirit is currently at work in the church.
To Paul, constant awareness of grace and peace are the keys to being a healthy church.
"Grace" reminds us that everything good -- our salvation, our church, our very lives -- is a gift from God, not something we built or earned on our own. Humility is going to be a constant drumbeat in this letter. (Keep this in mind as we go! They might be inclined to get a big head considering how well they have done for themselves and how highly other churches speak of them.)
"Peace" sets the environment for every effective church. Of course, peace with God is itself a gracious gift of God, not something we can sue for. But peace with God is also the necessary prerequisite for peace with people. When we have strife with one another, our church will be stunted.
This first section of the lesson is all about setting the context. My application might seem a little heavy-handed, though. I want us all to spend focused time praying for peace in Europe, and this verse is why. War is a by-product of sin. We are supposed to be people of peace. We have received peace from God as a free gift, a peace that enables us to be whole and to overcome sin. And we are supposed to be ambassadors of that peace to the world. Where Jesus changes hearts, where peace reigns in people's hearts, there will be no war.
[Aside: Christians can, of course, serve in the military in wartime. That is one of the ways to care for people who cannot care for themselves. In my experience, soldiers are some of the most earnest prayers for peace -- they understand the cost of war.]
Part 2: Evidence (1 Thessalonians 1:2-5)
2 We always thank God for all of you, making mention of you constantly in our prayers. 3 We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full assurance.
Paul's words might seem a bit over-the-top, considering that Paul knew them for all of three weeks. But we have to remember the circumstances. After just three weeks (less for many of them), this church was strong enough to face a city uprising, send Paul away (for Paul's own safety), and continue growing. Think about that. That's a demonstration of power!
When Paul says that he prayed constantly for this church, he meant it (it's amazing what life can be like without social media). Because I know there are quibblers out there, let me explain -- this means that every time Paul prayed (and Paul prayed a lot), he prayed for this church. It's a super-packed triad:
"work of faith" -- meaning the activity produced by faith
"labor of love" -- meaning the labor motivated by love
"endurance of hope" -- meaning the endurance that comes from their hope in Christ
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you already know what these three phrases mean. Get a group discussion going and talk about these three phrases and how they apply to a Christian church. Why do we need all three? How do we know when all three are present?
Warning: Calvinism Debate
The word "chosen" in verse 4 will make some want to stir up a "predestination" debate. Let me discourage that debate -- that's not Paul's point here! (And, as you can see from my article length, you have plenty else to talk about in this lesson!) Rather, Paul is simply trying to encourage some new Christians who are realizing how hard life can be in a non-Christian, cosmopolitan culture. "You should have no doubts that God is with you!"
But, let's delve into this a little further (and you can decide what you want to talk about in the group). The word "chosen" is connected with "election", and it's a theme we will see multiple times in the two letters to Thessalonica.
My guess is that church members in Thessalonica made the same observation that every Christian should make -- in their case, Paul preached to a lot of people in their city, but only a few of them believed. Why? Why them and not someone else? It's not because they (or us!) are smarter or because God loves them more! (Paul makes that very clear in his letters.) So, why? It's a mystery -- a mystery of God's grace. Jesus likened this to a sower scattering seed -- some falls on fertile soil, and the seed (the gospel) takes root, but most falls on soil that does not take root. Why? How?
Let's start with an observation that I think we can all agree on. It's not God's fault if a person chooses not to believe the gospel. But, the person can't take credit if they do believe. With that established, the mystery can be better appreciated.
Paul does not answer that question because it is an unanswerable question. Paul doesn't know why some people believe but not others, and neither do we. Rather, Paul turns their attention to what he knows to be true: there is clear evidence that these recipients are Christians, and they should take great encouragement from that.
Unfortunately, some people want to answer the question "why". And that's where the fuller "Reformed" theological system comes from. They argue that these Thessalonian Christians are a product of God's eternal election. In other words, Paul's use of the word "chosen" is mechanical -- Paul is describing the mechanism of salvation. I'm not convinced that's what Paul is doing. I think he's just making an observation, just like Romans 10:9 is an observation:
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Everything else Paul has said about this church emphasizes their "work" and "labor" and "example". Yes, they are "chosen", but that did not negate their responsibility to confess and believe. We want to be careful with saying that God chose them because they confessed and believed, because that would make them instrumental in their own salvation. And salvation -- Paul is clear about this! -- is a gift of God, and there is nothing we can do to earn it for ourselves. I think this is a mystery we are unable to understand! The intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery. Not everyone who heard Paul preach the gospel in Thessalonica believed it, and we don't know why. But I am comfortable in saying this: God determined that everyone who calls upon Jesus will be saved. That is God's chosen method of salvation.
However you approach this word, please know that Paul wasn't trying to start a debate with this verse. Even Timothy George (a Calvinist who has his own view of the doctrine of election) insists that the point of Paul's words is encouragement:
The proper response to election is not pride but gratitude for God's amazing grace that saves eternally. Election, then, is neither a steeple from which we look in judgment on others, nor a pillow to sleep on. It is rather a stronghold in time of trial and a confession of praise to God's grace and to His glory.
Right. Well. However you want to get into that, please make it clear to your group that there are some questions we don't have answers for. And the intersection of sovereignty and responsibility in salvation is one of those. We know what the Bible tells us -- that those who confess and believe are saved.
This begs a great question: how can anybody be sure that they are a Christian? Or in the context of this letter, how does Paul know that God has "chosen" these Thessalonians?
Hallelujah, Paul tells us!
Verses 5-10 answer this question, and really, they should be taken all together, but Lifeway chose to arbitrarily break them up.
This is one of those times when doing a detailed outline of a passage can really help you understand it. I challenge you to sit down and answer this question for yourself from 1:5-10 -- how does Paul know that these church members are Christians?
Let me give you the easy start: Paul opens verse 5 with "because..." 😉
Here's what I'm hoping -- when you get done with studying these verses, the people in your group will have an idea of what to say when someone asks them "how do I know if I'm a Christian?" That's a very, very important question, don't you think?
So, because why?
Verse 5a gives the overall answer, and then the rest of the passage goes into concrete examples.
Paul knows that God has "chosen" those Christians because there is visible, irrefutable evidence in their life for the spiritual transformation brought on by the Holy Spirit in salvation.
We should know that. That's not a mystery. Jesus did say, "By their fruits will you know them" (Matt 7). Anyone can say words (and in our culture, walk an aisle). But salvation results in a change powered by the Holy Spirit.
Start with the word "power". From your own life experience, what kind of power is Paul talking about with respect to the Holy Spirit? How have you seen it in your own life?
Paul's use of the word "assurance" needs some explanation. Unfortunately, today I hear people interpret this verse to mean that "I know I'm saved because I feel saved" ("I feel assured of my salvation"). That's not at all what Paul is saying. That's circular logic. Every Christian has had a day when we didn't "feel" saved. If you've been there, how did you get out of it?
Let me make this as simple as I can -- the assurance Paul spoke of was not in themselves but in Christ. It's not "you feel assured that you are saved" but "you are assured that Christ is faithful to save you". Do you see the difference? I don't have to have faith in myself; I only have to have faith in Jesus. My salvation is not based on my worthiness or my holiness but entirely on God's grace and Jesus' sacrifice. Salvation isn't about me -- it's about Jesus.
For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Triumphant Quartet sings the line "God so loved the world means even me". We can be assured that Jesus made salvation possible to all who believe, and we believe. (Side note: the fact that you're worried about this is a good sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in you.)
[Aside: this is a really big deal in Reformed (Calvinist) circles. Let's be honest -- they don't know if they're saved or not. So, they take from this passage that the "feeling of assurance" is evidence of salvation. And if they don't "feel" it, they worry that God, in fact, did not choose them. They can have all the faith that Jesus made salvation possible and not know if it applies to them. A famous Puritan named William Perkins wrote a very influential treatise called A Golden Chain that explains the "steps" of salvation (and even came with a handy chart!). If you're interested, he has a lot to say. It's quite heavy.]
Part 3: Influence (1 Thessalonians 1:5-8)
You know how we lived among you for your benefit, 6 and you yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of severe persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit. 7 As a result, you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place that your faith in God has gone out. Therefore, we don’t need to say anything,
Now Paul takes that general answer and gives some clear and specific instances that the Thessalonian Christians could take heart in. As we go through this, I want you to think about specific instances in your own life where you can say "yeah, that's definitely God at work in my life". [Paul's encouragement works both ways: if you can't find any such evidence, then that's a warning that you need to think about your relationship with God!]
Paul's initial note about "imitators" is going to come up again next week, so I recommend not digging into that too much this week. Just remember that some Christians were trying to convince the church that Paul wasn't the right leader for them, that he didn't really care about them. (I covered that in our lesson on Paul in jail in Philippi.) But Paul reminds them that their new lifestyle in Christ gelled with Paul's own lifestyle, so that should give them confidence that Paul is a Christian.
Example 1: They followed Jesus even under persecution.
We talked about one instance of this in the introduction -- within a few weeks of becoming Christian, the entire city is riled up against Paul and calls every Christian a dissident against Caesar! That's a threat to their lives! And yet they still thought of Paul's safety, and they didn't back down. That's clear evidence of power, of real transformation.
They had the assurance that Jesus saved them and protected their eternal souls, and so they could persevere through persecution. By definition, isn't that the "endurance of hope"?
And they experienced all of this with joy! [It might be worth a moment to remind everyone in your group what "hope" means and what "joy" means. We aren't too far removed from our Advent devotions for some of you to remember. 😊)
How does Paul know this? Because other believers heard about it and observed it with their own eyes. If you ever want to know about yourself, ask other people about you. The internet likes to draw a hard line between "character" and "reputation", but I still say that the best evidence of your character is not what you say about yourself but what others say about you. And people all over Macedonia and Achaia (see the map above) were talking about this church's faithfulness and example.
That leads directly to the second example.
Example 2: Their efforts to spread the gospel have been noticed.
Paul is probably writing this letter within a few months of being kicked out of Thessalonica. So, in just a few months of becoming Christian and starting a church, this church has made noticed effort to fulfill the Great Commission! (Thessalonica/Macedonia/Achaia is a clear parallel with Jerusalem/Judea/Samaria.)
The phrase "your faith in God has gone out" is the best translation of the Greek; your leader guide takes this to mean "reports about your faith have spread". In other words, the church isn't actively spreading the gospel, but stories about the church are spreading. (Actually, the word has the cool meaning of "echo", giving the image of the story reverberating throughout the land.) That's definitely what verse 9 implies! (It's the spiritual equivalent of "hey, those people can't all be wrong!"). But I don't think this is either/or. Paul makes quite a fuss about the church's "labor of love" -- what could that be other than trying to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Being in a commercial city and having church members who were obviously part of the merchant class, their church members would have been travelling regularly throughout Macedonia and Achaia. I think it's pretty clear that these new Christians were taking very seriously the idea that "as we go into all the earth, we are to make disciples".
They were doing this out of obedience -- not to get noticed or to start a church network. To Paul, that is the sort of thing that "proves" your salvation.
[This is a side question, but it's probably a good one to toss out there: what's your church's reputation in your area?]
Let's move on to the last part and tie it all together.
Part 4: Purpose (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)
9 for they themselves report what kind of reception we had from you: how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Example 3: There was a dramatic, observable change in religion.
You might not have a lot of experience with this. What's the biggest religious conversion you've observed? As I said, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan city. We can't really quantify the number and range of religions and cults in that corner of history. But perhaps you can appreciate this: participating in a city's cults was considered proper civic duty. Rejecting local cults got Paul in a great deal of trouble (like in Thessalonica!). But these Christians did just that -- they rejected their old idols and worship practices and sought to follow Jesus, no matter the cost.
That is a clearly observable change, and it wasn't risk-free. The fact that these Christians were willing to sacrifice something for Jesus was proof to Paul that something real had happened within them.
This is like that argument for the resurrection -- one proof of the resurrection is the dramatic change in the lives of the apostles. If Jesus were dead, if their tales of seeing Him alive were lies, would they really be willing to suffer persecution and even execution for such a lie? No! Jesus rose from the dead, and they saw Him, and their lives were changed. What they did with the rest of their lives is proof of that change.
Sometimes, it takes a while to see evidence of such a change. We know from experience that it can be hard to leave old habits or lifestyles behind. But eventually that change will reveal itself. What evidence of change is in your life? What changes still need to be made?
Example 4: They have a new perspective on eternity.
This feeds from that last part. Why should anyone care to make a change in a lifestyle? Because we believe that there will be consequences for living the "wrong" way! Think of it this way: if you didn't believe that Jesus were coming back to judge the living and the dead, would you care about what the Bible says?
Think about the Parable of the Faithful Servant in Luke 12:42-48. The servant who began to doubt that the master was returning stopped paying attention to the master's instructions. And when the master did finally return ...
These new believers believe that Jesus is returning, and it has changed how they think about everything. This is not a random comment -- questions about the Second Coming are going to take center-stage in a couple of chapters, so you don't need to put a lot of time into explaining Jesus' Resurrection, Ascension, and Return (if you have any time left in class!). Save that for a later lesson.
So, those are Paul's four examples for the Thessalonians to be encouraged by:
They followed Jesus even when persecuted
Other people noticed their efforts for the gospel
They clearly changed their behavior
They have a new perspective on eternity
To Paul, that was proof. And of course, he was right. The parable of the sower that I mentioned above gives us pause -- there is a soil in which the gospel "seems" to take root, but the evidence is short-lived. Opposition and persecution snuff out any lasting impact. But these Christians have already endured that opposition and persecution!
Do those reasons help you know how to help someone else struggling with assurance of salvation?
But remember most of all -- and let this drive your closing prayer -- our assurance of salvation isn't about us at all but about Jesus. He is mighty to save everyone who calls on Him. We can have all faith in that, even (especially) when we doubt ourselves.