1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica is generally considered to be the oldest document in the New Testament. It is usually dated around the year 50 CE, or 17-20 years after Jesus’ resurrection. It is the earliest written witness, then, of what the Christian faith meant for the Gentiles who first heard it preached in the Greco-Roman world.
As I looked at the text of 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, the material coalesced for me around four words: comprehension, conviction, conversion and commission. Now I would not ordinarily organize the text around four alliterative points. “Points” are not generally my thing; I think a narrative approach is generally preferable. However, as a worked with the text, these four words kept coming back to me as a way to describe how the church in Thessalonica received the apostle Paul’s’ preaching of the gospel.
The first thing that strikes me is that Paul’s message included specific assertions about who God is and what God did.
The “living and true God” (1:9) is “the Father” (1:1, 1:3). By implication, all other deities are “idols” that Paul condemns in 1:9.
Furthermore, Jesus is the “Christ” (1:1, 1:3) [or “messiah” or “anointed one”]. He is “the Lord” (1:1, 1:3) and God’s “son” (1:10), whom God raised from the dead (1:10). In the future, Jesus will come again from heaven to save “us” [the church, whom Paul addresses] from the wrath to come [presumably on those who still cling to idols] (1:10).
So Paul proclaimed a faith that encompassed God the Father, and Jesus Christ, his Son, the Lord, who died, who rose from the dead, and who will come again when God judges the world.
Now that’s starting to sound familiar. It sounds more than a little bit like the Apostles’ Creed to me. The current version of creed is much later, but many of the the specific words and the basic outline of the creed are found in the oldest document in the Christian New Testament.
Without God’s concrete acts in Jesus, the word “god” is an empty concept which can be filled with all sorts of meaning.
When I was younger, Sunday School teachers on multiple occasions have asked the members of the class to each write their own creeds – to put down on paper what they personally believed. That was an interesting exercise, but I think it missed the point of what the creed is all about. I suppose that it’s important to be able to put my own faith into words, but my faith darn well better be built on the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. When I confess the creed, I am joining myself to the faith of the church dating back at least to the time of the apostles.
Paul did not preach general religious principles for a happy life. He didn’t preach faith in faith. He didn’t teach that faith is built on feelings or personal experiences or individual reason. The foundation of everything else Paul said and did was the message of what God has done in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and what God was going to do in the future when Jesus came again.
We know who God is – and who God isn’t – because of Jesus Christ. Without God’s concrete acts in Jesus, the word “god” is an empty shell which can be filled with all sorts of meaning.
So when I use the word “comprehension” to describe how the early Christians received the gospel, I mean that they understood the message Paul proclaimed to have a specific content. That content is the the Gospel – the good news:
- There is only one true and living God the Father; the rest are idols
- Jesus is the Lord and Messiah whom God the Father raised from the dead
- Jesus will come again from heaven
- The day of God’s final judgment will come at last; on that day, Jesus will save those who belong to him from God’s wrath
This is the faith of the church in every age and place, and the foundation of everything else
Of course salvation is not just a matter of words and ideas. Paul says that the Thessalonian Christians received it with power. What does Paul mean by “power”?
It might mean that wondrous miracles attended the preaching of the word, such as we find in the gospels or the book of Acts. However, there’s no hint of that here.
It might mean that the charismatic gifts described in 1 Corinthians and the book of Acts accompanied the preaching of the word. Again, there is scant notice in this letter on the charismatic gifts, apart from one tepid mention of prophetic utterances in 5:19-21.
Rather, it appears to me that the power Paul described in 1:5 is synonymous with “the Holy Sprit” and “deep conviction” in the same verse. It is an inward work of the Holy Spirit to bring assurance to the believer.
Our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:5)
Paul is describing an inner work that he describes as “deep conviction” or “full assurance” (πληροφορία). The condition Paul describes is not half-hearted or hesitant.
In the following chapter, he describes the result of this conviction.
When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
God’s word performs its work in those who believe.
We have many different ways of experiencing this deep conviction or full assurance. For me, the most vivid moments have been those times I’ve been assured of things I already believed and experienced the state of grace that I already claimed by faith.
God’s word performs its work in those who believe.
There is power in God’s assurance. There is also power in how this conviction bubbles over into our lives. The power of the Holy Spirit enabled the Thessalonian Christians to receive the faith with joy (1:6) and endurance (1:3), even in the midst of great suffering. It drove them to accomplish works of faith and labors of love (1:3). It empowered them to live the kind of lives they saw modeled in the life of Paul, and recorded in the story of Jesus. (1:6)
That, then, leads us to next point. The power of the Holy Spirit may be seen most of all in the changed lives of those who had once given themselves to idols and who had lived in accordance with the spirit of this age. Conviction leads to conversion
Paul reports that the Thessalonian Christians turned from idols to serve the living and true God. Their lives changed.
Idolatry was serious business, for Paul and the early church. And it was pervasive. There were so-called gods everywhere you turned: in private homes, in the market places, in temples, on street corners, in military camps, and in the various sorts of community associations that existed. The Greeks and Romans swam in a sea of idolatry.
Turning from idolatry wasn’t easy. In an environment filled with idols, people just naturally absorb idolatrous values. You didn’t have to work hard to be a pagan in a pagan environment. Quite the contrary, in that environment you had to work pretty hard to disentangle yourself from idolatry. You had to be intentional about it.
The early Christians realized this and consequently built rigor into their baptismal practices. The church eventually required that new believers spend an extended period as catechumens, or learners. During this time, the former pagans learned to see their lives in accordance with the ways of God. The church prayed for these new Christians to be set free from the evil spiritual powers that clung to almost everything in the ancient world. At baptism, new Christians renounced the world, the flesh and the devil, and the church once again prayed for their spiritual freedom.
Turning from idols meant more than just avoiding pagan temples.
We don’t have a world filled with statues of Apollo and Zeus, so idolatry is not a problem for us, is it? Surely, the world doesn’t shape us unconsciously into its idolatrous ways, or does it? I think that it is hard for us to see how the world affects most Christians in many and subtle ways, and consequently how we still need to turn to the living and true God from the idols of our age.
We see this “turning” in how the Thessalonians lived. Turning from idols meant more than just avoiding pagan temples.
Throughout his letter, Paul alludes to a few of the ways in which the new Christians would have to turn from the culture of idols.
For one thing, they had to turn away from the Greek views of sexual license that dominated their culture. To be Christians, the Thessalonians had to live differently (4:1-8).
They also had to learn to return good for evil. Even when people abused them, they had to love their neighbors. (5:15)
And they had to learn to love all the people in the church – people from every walk of life – which not a typically Greek or Roman thing to do. In the Roman world, everyone had their place, and “love” wasn’t a word that you would use to describe how the upper classes and lower classes related to each other. But in the church, love was required for all the brethren. (3:12, 4:9-10)
I think that it is also very interesting that the Thessalonian Christians had to learn to respect manual labor – again, not a typically Greek thing to do. Those who were rich had their servants do the work. Status and power were respected; actual labor, not so much. Paul returns to this several times in his short letter (2:9, 4:11-12, 5-11). Be willing to work, to take care of yourself and your brothers and sisters in the church. Don’t think that work is beneath you. You are not better than anyone else!
The Thessalonians even had to look at how they listened to the speeches in the market place and how they heard the arguments of philosophers. Christianity even has different communications standards that the world around us (2:5-6).
This turning, this conversion, required that you reexamine everything in your life, and learn to live differently than those who worshiped the Greek and Roman idols.
And you could not do this without the power of the Holy Spirit.
So are you with me so far? The Thessalonian Christians:
- Comprehended the message Paul preached
- Were convicted of its truth by the power of the Holy Spirit
- Were converted from idolatry to the true God and his ways in the world
Which leads us to the last word: commission.
The Thessalonians who heard the message, believed its truth and changed their lives were commissioned to help spread that message to others.
The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place (1:8)
The gospel message rang out from Thessalonica into the surrounding towns and villages and south into the heart of Greece, and from there out into the world.
Consciously and unconsciously, we learn how to live as Christians by absorbing how the faithful people around us live their lives.
Notice what Paul was not saying. He wasn’t saying that the Thessalonians became preaching evangelists like him. There is no mention of such a thing. There’s not even a mention of supporting the traveling evangelists, such as you find in other letters. There is no mention of evangelistic campaigns, of knocking on doors, of preaching on street corners or handing out gospel tracts.
Quite to the contrary, instead of making a big noise about their faith and being a little pushy about it, Paul says,
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
Live a quiet life. Earn the respect of outsiders.
In the first chapter, Paul talks about:
- Doing works of faith and labors of love
- Imitating Paul and Jesus in one’s daily life
- Living in joy and endurance in the face of suffering
Three words sum up what I hear Paul saying: be the church. Be good Christians, so that others can see what being a Christian is all about
How does God makes a disciple? To be sure. preaching and teaching are important. There are truths a Christian needs to comprehend. But here Paul shows us one more dimension of disciple making: imitation and modeling.
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7)
Being a Christian is not a solitary endeavor. We learn how to be a Christians by being around other faithful Christians. Both consciously and unconsciously, we learn how to live as Christians by absorbing how the faithful people around us live their lives. And, in turn, we become models for others who choose to walk in the way of Christ. That’s the commission that Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.
So have you been tracking? In the earliest document in the New Testament, we see that from the beginning to become a Christian encompassed a number of logically related things:
- Comprehension of the apostolic gospel message
- Conviction of its truth by the power of the Holy Spirit
- Conversion of one’s life, turning from the world’s idols to serve the living and true God in every aspect of one’s life
- Commissioning to do one’s part in making new disciples by letting others see Christ in one’s way of life
That’s how Christians received the gospel in the Greek town of Thessalonica nearly 2000 years ago.
Perhaps it also has something to tell us about how people can receive the gospel in their lives today.