Letters for Life: 1 Thessalonians
If one were so bold, one might say that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is merely 3 John 1:4 in expanded form. The verse reads thus, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
In this brief epistle we see Paul’s deep and overriding desire to rejoice in the spiritual growth of the Thessalonians. And through Paul’s response, as well as the situation that precipitated his response, we are able to glean a number of vital truths that will help us handle the challenges of discipleship, especially those who are fresh and fragile in the faith.
That’s really what 1 Thessalonians is all about. There is certainly a discussion about the Lord’s return, and the matter of sexual purity is discussed at length, and various other charges are given, but more than anything else, Paul’s letter provides a direct window into the heart of a man keenly concerned about baby Christians who are facing extraordinary challenges.
So let’s say it this way. Suppose you’re intimately involved in the life or lives of some new Christians. They’re babes in Christ; certainly eager and zealous for the Lord, but in need of much instruction. They need discipled. Now suppose that after only a month or so they’re forced to deal with a truly trying situation. And to complicate matters, you aren’t able to interact with them as freely as you would like. Painful circumstances create a gap. You literally can’t see them face to face. You’re concerned about their faith. You’re concerned that it will all prove too much for them. You desperately want to walk beside them, to help them, and to encourage them.
What do you do? Enter 1 Thessalonians.
A bit of background will help fill out the picture.
After entering the city of Thessalonica, Paul (and Silas) reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue (See Acts 17:1ff). A great many devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women came to faith. We’re told that this disturbed the Jews unto jealousy. And so the Jews plotted and formed a mob and assaulted the fledgling Christians. The situation was so intense that Paul and Silas were forced to leave under the cover of night. In a word, the problem was persecution. And with Paul and Silas gone, the new Christians were left alone in the lion’s den.
Unable to return to the saints in Thessalonica, Paul, when he could stand it no longer, sent Timothy to inquire into their faith and to encourage them (1 Thess 3:1-5). Upon Timothy’s return, Paul received the delightful news that the Thessalonians were not only standing firm, but flourishing (3:6-10). Overjoyed, Paul dispatched a letter; the very letter we possess in our Bibles.
So what are some things we can learn?
Observation #1: Encouragement
Paul openly rejoices in the faith of the Thessalonians. He highlights their progress. He recounts their acts of repentance with great approval. And he even applies the doctrinal gem of divine election to them, saying, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:4-5a).
It seems to me, given Paul’s example, that we would do well to speak like Paul when Christians demonstrate the fruits of salvation. When was the last time the words, “I know that God has chosen you, dearly loved by the Lord,” escaped your lips? Perhaps you’re like me- afraid of disappointment; afraid that the saint will wander off the path in time; that they’ll fall away like so many others. But here is where our fears must give way to fruit. Paul heard of their “work of faith,” and “labor of love,” and “patience of hope,” and as a result, he couldn’t help but encourage them with the great doctrinal truth of election. Paul was keen on encouraging the saints at Thessalonica. And when the evidence is unmistakable, we should praise such holiness.
Observation #2: Pastoral Heart
Paul clearly loved the Thessalonians. He loved them dearly. His entire letter is evidence. When he was with them, he was gentle like a nursing mother (2:7). He shared his life with them (2:8). He affectionately longed for them, desirous to share the Gospel (2:8). He labored among them so as to not be a burden (2:9). He exhorted, comforted, and charged each of them, as a father does his own children (2:11). They were, to state it simply, dear to him (2:8).
This same love saturates his letter. This is instructive. What is ministry if it is not rooted in love; or if it does not keep you up at night; or does not crowd your thoughts; or if it does not talk like this, “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.” (2:19-20)?
And let us not forget that it was Paul’s love and affections that caused him to seek them out (by sending Timothy). He said, “Therefore, when we could no longer endure it… we sent Timothy… to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith” (3:1-2).
The words, “when we could no longer endure it,” are piercing. His heart was restless. The spiritual welfare of those under his care propelled him to act. He could do no other. And it is this portrayal of godliness that urges us to reflect again on our love for the brethren, particularly those who are but saplings.
Observation #3: Deflecting Accusations
It is worth noting in passing that Paul felt it worth his time to interact with the calumny of the Jews. We see this all throughout chapter two. Of course, he doesn’t come right out and say he’s doing that, but he is.
Leon Morris is helpful here. He writes,
“It is clear from both Acts and 1 Thessalonians that the principal opposition to the church at Thessalonica came from the implacable Jewish community in that city. They probably were able to enlist a certain amount of Gentile support, but the Jews were the mainspring of the constant opposition. One part of their campaign was a personal attack on Paul himself. They urged that he had no real love for his converts (else why did he not come back to them?), and that he had never been motivated by any genuine concern for them, but only by the desire for personal profit. At that period there were many wandering preachers, both of philosophy and religion. They made a living by imposing on the credulity of those whom they could persuade to listen to them. It was easy to impugn Paul’s sincerity, and to class him with these familiar wandering charlatans.”
Read through the second chapter of Thessalonians. Note how Paul doesn’t entangle himself with the snorts of the opposition. He instead uses their slander as an opportunity. He reminds the Thessalonians of his life (which was genuine), their changed lives, and the power of the Gospel. He encouraged them throughout. And in this we see Paul turning evil on its head. He overcame evil with good.
Observation #4: Encouragement Doesn’t Negate Instructions
It might be tempting to go easy on persecuted, baby Christians, speaking tender words without instruction. But that is not Christianity. In fact, Christianity is holiness amidst all circumstances (3:4).
It is in this vein that Paul’s final remarks (chapters 4-5) help model for us the blending together of genuine affection and encouragement with clear and incisive teachings/instructions. He calls them to purity (4:1-8). He calls them to esteem their leaders. He clears up a misconception about death and the Lord’s return. And he strings together a list of imperatives.
Love and instruction were not enemies in Paul’s mind. Therefore, let us not think otherwise.
 One cannot help but think what the outcome might have been had Paul not conducted himself in an overtly holy manner. What if he did burden them (2:9)? What if he did use flattering words (2:5)? What if he wasn’t gentle? There is surely a lesson hidden in this.