We began to study 1 Thessalonians before Christmas. And do you remember the historical background to this letter which we find in the books of Acts? Paul the Apostle travelled to Thessalonica on one of his missionary journeys. And in the synagogue he preached the good news of Jesus Christ who died and who was raised. And some of the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who heard Paul were convinced by his message and they were converted to faith in Christ, so that a little church was planted there.
But the unbelieving Jews in the city stirred up trouble against Paul and started a riot in the city. Paul was therefore forced to leave the city; and he travelled to nearby Berea where he continued to preach the gospel. But when the unbelieving Jews in Thessalonica heard that Paul was preaching the gospel in Berea, they travelled to Berea and turned the Bereans against Paul so that, once again, he was forced to leave.
And that’s the historical background to 1 Thessalonians, because Paul wrote this letter which we’re studying today to that little church which he planted in Thessalonica. He’s writing to those who believed his message about salvation. But those believers also witnessed that there are many who oppose the gospel and who hate the message of Jesus Christ. And, indeed, from what we read in chapter 1, it’s apparent that the members of the church in Thessalonica had themselves suffered for the faith, because Paul gave thanks to God for them, because they had become a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia, because they had welcomed the message of Jesus Christ in spite of severe suffering. They too have suffered for the faith, just as Paul had suffered for the faith. And in spite of what they suffered, they still believed the gospel and they still rejoiced in Christ their Saviour.
Well, we went through chapter 1 last time. However, I wasn’t able to spend enough time the last time on the final two verses of chapter 1 where Paul wrote about how they had turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, who rescues us from the coming wrath. And isn’t that a wonderfully succinct description of what a Christian is? What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who serves the living and true God and who is waiting for God’s Son, our Saviour, to come again. So, while we wait for Christ to come again — who will raise our dead bodies from the grave; and who promises to glorify us in body and soul in the presence of God forever — while we wait for Christ to come again, we’re to spend the rest of our lives here on earth serving and obeying the living and true God. So, instead of living our lives for ourselves, we’re to live our lives for him. Instead of pleasing ourselves — which is what we’re all prone to do — we’re to please him. We’re to make it our aim in life to serve the Lord, because he’s the only God; he’s the living and true God, the one who made all things and the one who sustains all things, and the one who rules and reigns over all and who commands us and everyone else to obey him, because he alone is Lord.
And as we seek to serve the living and true God every day, we’re looking forward to the day when God’s Son comes again, because when he comes again, he will raise his people from the dead, and he will transform them in body and in soul and bring them into the presence of the Lord to be with God for ever and for ever in glory.
Whoever does not believe in this God — the living and true God who sent his Son to save sinners by his death and resurrection — is trusting in an idol. And idols are not real and they cannot save anyone, because they cannot do anything. And so, people everywhere are commanded to turn from their sin and unbelief and to turn to the living and true God, and to serve him everyday while we wait for his Son to come again.
Verses 1 and 2
And because that’s what the members of the church in Thessalonica had done, Paul was able to write in verse 1 of chapter 2 that his visit to them was not a failure. It was not a failure, because when he preached the gospel in that city, there were some who believed the gospel and who turned from their idols to serve the living and true God.
‘Our coming to you was not in vain’; that’s how other English translations put it. His visit to them wasn’t in vain; it wasn’t a waste of time. In spite of strong opposition — he says at the end of verse 2 — we dared to tell you the gospel message. Why does he say he ‘dared’ to tell them the gospel message? Or why did he need a certain amount of boldness to preach the gospel in Thessalonica? Well, it’s because of what happened to him in Philippi, which he mentions here in the same verse. Before visiting Thessalonica, he went to Philippi; and Philippi was the place where he was stripped and beaten and flogged by the Roman authorities, before being thrown into prison. You can read about it in Acts 16. And since he suffered so much in Philippi, we can imagine that he might have been afraid to preach the gospel in Thessalonica, in case the same thing happened to him. But God gave him the help he needed, so that he dared once again to preach the gospel. God gave him the boldness and the courage he needed. And even though many of the unbelieving Jews opposed him, nevertheless his visit was not a failure, because some who heard him believed.
Verses 3 to 12
But from what Paul says in verses 3 to 12, it’s clear that, although he had left Thessalonica, there were still people in that city who were causing trouble for him; and who were criticising him; and spreading rumours about him. In these verses, Paul is clearly defending himself.
Now, it’s unlikely that those who were criticising him were members of the church. It’s more likely that these rumours and criticisms were coming from those outside the church. They were coming from those unbelieving Jews and others who had stirred up so much trouble for him when he was in the city. And it seems that there were now trying to undermine his ministry even after he had left by spreading these bad rumours about him. ‘You shouldn’t believe what Paul said’, they might have been saying.
You shouldn’t believe what Paul said, because after all, he can’t be trusted.
And so, what were they saying about Paul? Well, look at verse 3 for starters where Paul wrote:
For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.
That’s what they were saying about him, but Paul denies that he was trying to deceive them or to lead them astray by his preaching. On the contrary he says, we preached as men approved by God and entrusted by him with the gospel. The idea behind the word ‘approved’ is that God had examined Paul and his preaching companions and God had determined that they could be entrusted with the good news. So, God has examined Paul and was satisfied that he was not trying to deceive anyone.
Furthermore, as Paul goes on to say, we’re not trying to please men, but God, who tests the heart. A people-pleaser is a person who will say anything to win the favour of others. And it’s one of the greatest temptations a preacher can face, because a preacher is just like every one else and wants to be liked. Preachers want people to like them; and they don’t like it when people grumble and complain and criticise. Just like everyone else, preachers want everyone to like them and to say nice things about them. But the preacher’s calling is not to please the people, but it’s to please the Lord, who has entrusted the preacher with the gospel message to proclaim. And the preacher is duty bound to preach God’s word, in order to please the Lord.
So, Paul makes clear that he hadn’t tried to deceive anyone or to be a people-pleaser, because he knows that he’s been entrusted by God to preach the gospel message. And then he goes on in verse 5 to deny another accusation that had been made against him. And it’s closely related — isn’t it? — because this time he denies that he has ever used flattery. And we can imagine some of his enemies in Thessalonica saying to the members of the church that Paul had tricked them by heaping empty praise on them and by flattering them. And why might he have flattered them? Well, look at the rest of the verse: his enemies were saying he had flattered the believers and said nice things to them, because he was greedy and he was looking to get something from them. They were suggesting that his real motives for coming to Thessalonica were selfish. But Paul denies it and calls God as his witness. And he says very clearly in verse 6 that he and his preaching companions were not looking for praise from them. We weren’t trying to get honour or anything else from you. We weren’t trying to gain any profit at all for ourselves when we came to you.
Well now, you’ll notice in verse 6 that he says that since he was an apostle of the Lord, he had the right to expect support from them. However, even though he had the right to expect support from them, he was not a burden on them. So, he didn’t look to them for support. Instead, he says, we were gentle among you. So, instead of being demanding, and being a burden to you, we were gentle among you. And then he compares himself to a mother, caring for her little children. Well, a mother will not make demands on her little children. Just the opposite: the mother will give what she can to love and to care for her children. In fact, the Greek word Paul uses for mother refers to a nursing mother. So, he’s using the picture of a mother, taking her child tenderly in her arms, to feed her child with her own milk. So, when he went to Thessalonica, he didn’t come, making demands on the people. Instead he loved them and he was gentle with them and he shared the gospel message with them, feeding them on the good news, expecting nothing from them in return. And look at verse 8: he says that he and his companions loved the Thessalonians and were delighted to share the gospel with them; and not just the gospel, but they shared their lives with them. So, they didn’t remain cold and aloof, but they loved the believers in Thessalonica.
And Paul goes on in verse 9 to remind them that while they were there in Thessalonica, preaching the good news of the gospel, they supported themselves by their own hard work. So, he completely denies the suggestion that he used flattery while he was with them as a cover up for greed. He didn’t ask them for anything, but they supported themselves while they were there; and they loved and cared for the Thessalonians the way a mother cares for her children.
And then he calls on them and on God to witness to the fact that their conduct among the Thessalonians was always holy and righteous and blameless. Isn’t that a remarkable testimony? When the young people leave school or college; or when you leave the family home to move into your own place; or when you leave work to retire or to move to another job, wouldn’t it be something if the people you were leaving behind were able to say about you that your conduct among them was always holy and righteous and blameless? There’s something for you to aim for.
And Paul goes on to say that not only were they like a mother, but they were also like a father. So, he uses the image of a mother to convey the idea of his love for them, but he uses the image of a father to convey the idea of how Paul and his companions instructed the Thessalonians in the faith. And so, Paul and his companions exhorted them and encouraged them and charged them to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. So, instead of living a sinful life, which would bring dishonour to the Lord, they were to live a good and upright life, which will honour the Lord. And he reminds his readers that God has called us into his kingdom and glory. So, when Christ returns, he’ll bring us into God’s eternal kingdom where we will dwell with God in glory for ever and for ever. That’s the great hope God has given to us and to all who believe. And therefore, while we wait for that day to arrive, when we will enter the glory to come in God’s everlasting kingdom, we’re to live in such a way that our life here on earth reflects the glory of the life to come.
Just as a father instructs his children, so Paul instructed the believers in Thessalonica. And as a preacher of Jesus Christ, I’m duty bound to do the same with you, and to exhort you and to encourage you and to charge you to live a life that is worthy of God. And so, you should examine yourself and examine the way you live your life and how you treat one another to see whether your life here on earth and the way you treat one another reflects the glory of heaven above where we will love one another perfectly. God our Father is calling you to leave behind your sins and to leave behind all that is unholy and to leave behind all that is not good; and he’s calling on you to live a life that is pleasing to him.
Verses 13 to 16
Well, Paul and his preaching companions went to Thessalonica and God enabled them to preach the good news of the gospel and to call on the people to turn from idols to serve the living and true God. And in verse 13 Paul gives thanks to God because of the way they responded to his preaching. How did they respond to his preaching? Well, Paul tells us that they received the word of God, which they heard from Paul and his companions; and they accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is. So, what is it actually? It is actually the word of God.
Now, some of those who heard Paul and his companions, may have regarded their message as being the word of men only, which they could take or leave. That’s what we do with the things we hear from men and women in our everyday life. You go to see the doctor who offers you some medical advice. And perhaps you accept what the doctor says. Or perhaps you’re not too sure, and you have your doubts, and you want a second opinion. You do the same thing when you take the car to the garage. The mechanic says what’s wrong with the car, and you perhaps accept his advice; or perhaps you think he’s talking nonsense and you take your car down the road to the next garage. That’s what we do with the information and advice we get from one another in our daily lives. We weigh it in our mind and ask ourselves if it makes sense to us. And some who heard Paul in Thessalonica treated his message like that; and when they heard him, they regarded it as nonsense. Something similar happened when he went to Athens, and some of the people there called him a babbler because his message seemed to them to be nonsense.
However, there were others in Thessalonica who heard Paul and his companions preach. And they were convinced that what they were hearing from Paul and his companions was not just the word of men. They were convinced that this was the word of God. They were convinced that this message — which Paul and his companions proclaimed — had come from God.
And what does Paul say about God’s word? Well, at the end of verse 13 he said that God’s word is at work in you who believe. So, as we sit and listen to God’s word on Sundays, something is happening. Something is happening. Yes, the preacher is preaching. Yes, the people are listening. But something else is happening. Something supernatural is happening. Something unseen is happening. Because whenever God’s word is faithfully proclaimed by preachers sent from God, God is at work in the hearts and minds and wills of those who believe in order to change them.
He uses the preaching of his word to create faith in our hearts. And he also uses the preaching of his word to strengthen our faith and to sanctify us, so that we become more and more willing and able to obey the Lord. And so, in the case of the Thessalonians, God worked in them through the preaching of his word so that they became imitators of God’s churches in Judea. Do you see that in verse 14? And the way they became imitators of God’s churches in Judea was by being willing to suffer for Christ, just as the members of the churches in Judea had suffered for Christ. Believing in Christ was not easy, because there were so many people in Thessalonica who were hostile to the believers. And yet, God worked in their hearts and minds and wills through the preaching of his word, so that they were willing to persevere in the faith despite all the persecution they suffered.
And it’s the same today. There are many who are hostile to the Christian faith. And we all face all kinds of troubles and trials which threaten to crush our faith. And then there are all the worries of life which can choke our faith and make it weak. And then there are the desires for other things, which tempt us to leave behind the narrow way that leads to life. There are so many obstacles in our way. But the Lord has given us the preaching of his word to strengthen our faith and to reassure us of his love and to enable us to persevere day after day. He uses the preaching of his word. He also uses the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper which we received this morning. He has given us these things to strengthen our faith and to refresh our tired and weary souls and to renew us in his image so that we’re able to live a live worthy of our God.
Well, Paul concludes this part of his letter in verses 15 and 16 by recalling the ways unbelieving Jews have always opposed the Lord and his servants. Unbelieving Jews were responsible for killing the Lord Jesus. And unbelieving Jews were responsible for killing some of the Old Testament prophets. Unbelieving Jews drove Paul and his companions from Thessalonica. Unbelieving Jews were, in a sense, hostile to all men, because again and again they opposed the preaching of the gospel. So, Paul concludes this part of the letter by recalling the ways unbelieving Jews have always opposed the Lord and his servants. But look at the final sentence, because in the final sentence Paul makes clear that the wrath of God comes on all those who continue in their sin and unbelief. Paul uses a past tense verb to say that the wrath of God has already come on them. So, even in this life, God will punish those who refuse to repent and believe. He punishes them in this life; and then, in the end, when Christ comes again, he will punish them forever.
Well, from what we’ve been reading this evening it’s clear that those who belong to the Lord and those who don’t are very different from one another. Physically we’re just the same, but we belong to two different kingdoms or we have two different kinds of existence; and the way we think and what we believe is so very different from one another. There are those who serve the living and true God and who are waiting for Christ to come again; and there are those who serve idols which are not real and what cannot do anything. There are those who respond to the preaching of the gospel with faith and obedience; and there are those who dismiss the preaching of the gospel and who make all kinds of malicious accusations about those who proclaim it. There are those who make it their aim to live a life worthy of the Lord; and there are those who have no desire to please the Lord. There are those who have been called into God’s kingdom and glory; and there are those who remain in the kingdom of darkness and under the tyranny of the Devil. There are those who regard the message of the apostles as the very word of God; and there are those who regard it as the word of men only and who oppose it and who persecute those who preach it.
We’re very different from one another; And between these two kingdoms there is always strong opposition and hostility. And this, of course, should not surprise us, because in the beginning the Lord declared in the Garden of Eden that he would put enmity between the serpent and the women and between those who belong to Satan and those who belong to Christ. And so, as we live in the world, waiting for Christ to come again, we should not be surprised if an unbelieving world hates the church of Jesus Christ, because the Lord decreed that this is the way it will be.
But notice too that the end of those who believe and the end of those who do not believe is very different from one another, because those who serve the living and true God and who are waiting for Christ to come again will be saved from the coming wrath; while those who continue to serve idols and who displease God and who oppose God and his people will suffer the wrath of God. And so, though we may suffer for the faith as Paul suffered and as the Thessalonians suffered, we must stand firm and persevere, because in the end, when Christ comes again, he will save his people from the coming wrath and give them everlasting life in his everlasting and glorious kingdom.