The first letter the Thessalonian Church received from Paul is filled with thankfulness and approval. What was that church doing right, and what can that teach us today?
In our modern hour of tribalism, secularism, and nationwide conflict, it’s worth remembering that every one of the first century churches existed under the pressures of a fallen world—just like we do.
The church in Thessalonica faced constant opposition from without. In our post-Christian society, it’s common for the modern American church to face persecution in social and economic spheres, where the prospect of losing income or friends over our faith is real. In Thessalonica, that persecution included the threat of physical violence.
Beyond this outward pressure, there was potential for interior conflict from a cause common today: ethnic identity. According to Acts 17, Greeks and Jews initially made up the Thessalonian church. Outside the church, these groups did not mix for reasons like religion, diets, cultures, and lack of mutual respect.
To round out our list of “church challenges,” it seems that the church had some confusion about the resurrection—this is one of the only epistles where Paul lays out foundational information about the return of Christ.
But despite their ethnic differences, persecution from without, and ignorance within, when Paul greets the Thessalonian church in his first letter, he says that the church “became an example to all those who believe in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
Stunning! Could you imagine the Apostle Paul coming to your church and saying, “Good job, guys, you’ve become an example to all those who believe in the United States!”? We don’t live in first-century Macedonia or Achaia, but we can still look at the first letter to the Thessalonians and ask ourselves: what were these new Christians doing right?
The answers, I think, will surprise us in their simplicity and encourage us in our own commitment to Christ.
A Pat on the Back
We give thanks to God always for all of you…3remembering before our God and Father your work motivated by trust, and labor prompted by love, and endurance based on hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
In the first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul compliments the group, referring to their:
Work motivated by trust
Labor prompted by love
Endurance based on hope in Jesus Christ
It’s worth noting that Paul’s compliment does not just say, “work, labor, and endurance.” Instead, it names the motivation for each. Trust (or faith), love, and hope. Sound familiar? These are the “three that remain” in I Corinthians 13:13—
But now remains trust, hope, love, these three, and the greatest of these is love.
Paul connects trust, love, and hope as the roots, and work, labor, and endurance as the results. When we stoke our trust, our love, and our hope in Jesus Christ—only good will come.
For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.I Thessalonians 3:8
And we also constantly thank God for this: that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God […] 14For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Judea that are in Christ Jesus, because you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,I Thessalonians 2:13, 14
It’s easy to minimize the important step of discerning truth, but the world we live in is intentionally confusing—the adversary’s goal is to garble the Gospel, making it difficult to discern truth from error and thereby keeping the word from people’s hearts. I Thessalonians specifically mentions that their faith in God was based on revering the Word of God as such: when they saw someone teaching the truth, they recognized it.
From recognition, the Thessalonian church moved to commitment. Commitment is not a natural consequence of recognition of the truth—one of Jesus’ most famous parables treats with different responses to the Word using the illustration of seed thrown on different qualities of soil:
And the seed that was sown on the rocky places, this is the one who hears the word, and immediately with joy receives it, 21yet he does not have any root in himself, but is short-lived. When hardships or persecution arise because of the word, immediately he falls away.Matthew 13:20-21
Recognizing that the Word is from God is a first step, but Jesus taught that it should be followed by commitment in the face of hardship or persecution. Imagine Paul’s delight in hearing that the church at Thessalonica was standing firm in the face of opposition!
In modern-day America, violent persecution of Christians is rare. But we find ourselves under pressure in our friendships, our families, our workplaces, and other spheres of our lives. We, too, face opportunities to bow to pressure and reject the Gospel, and we can take heart from examples like this one. Not only did God preserve the Thessalonian church, God and Paul were delighted that the Thessalonians were standing fast in the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Growth Process
…we ask and encourage you in the Lord Jesus, that as you learned from us how you must walk and please God—as indeed you are walking—that you excel even more.I Thessalonians 4:1
Now concerning affection for God’s family, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. 10For indeed, that is what you are doing for all the brothers and sisters in the whole region of Macedonia. And we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to excel even more…I Thessalonians 4:9-10
No doubt the Thessalonian commitment to loving God’s family held them together despite their ethnic differences. Our families of origin have biological and relational ties to each of us, but they are not our identity. Our identity—and our true family—is found in Christ.
If you’re looking, you can see a startling detail of the first letter to the Thessalonian church in what Paul does not say. He doesn’t congratulate the church, saying, “Hey—you’ve arrived!” Nor does he scold them, “Pathetic! You aren’t even close! You should just give up!”
As Christ-followers, do we speak to ourselves and others this way? Or do we address ourselves and our fellow-believers with words like, “We ask and encourage you…that as you learned from us …as indeed you are walking—that you excel even more.”
You’re doing it. Keep it up. Excel even more.
The letter emphasizes that the Thessalonian obedience to God was a process with neither arrival nor failure—we in the modern church can take note! In our walk with God in Christ Jesus, we are doing our best and getting better, and that is acceptable to God.
The Modern World
The churches to which Paul wrote faced challenges fundamentally like those in the modern age, and the solutions are the same. This isn’t God’s first rodeo—on the contrary, the Church Epistles are an example to us in how to live and withstand hardship. Lifestyles immersed in work motivated by trust, labor prompted by love, and endurance based on hope in Jesus Christ will win out from now to the return of Jesus Christ.
The process is neither of perfection nor failure, but rather a patient commitment to growth as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ. And God is pleased.