The Church at Thessalonica
J. H. Large, Lesmahagow, Lanark
Quotations are from the Revised Version
The journey of about one hundred miles from Philippi to Thessalonica is divided in Acts 17. 1 into three roughly equivalent stages, and it is a reasonable conjecture that Luke, without making a great deal of it, indicates that the distance was covered by three days’ hard marching. If we keep primitive conditions in mind, we shall be impressed with the way in, which these early messengers of the Gospel buoyantly put a lot of exhausting effort into their service for Christ.
Paul in the Synagogue
Although Paul was distinctly the apostle of the Gentiles, yet he consistently gave priority to the Jews and accordingly spent the first three Sabbath days in the local synagogue. His method with them was to outline the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah, stressing that they made it clear that He was to suffer and rise from the dead, then showing that these prophecies corresponded with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, concluding with the argument - ‘this Jesus, whom, ... I proclaim unto you, is the Christ’, Acts 17. 3.
The Jews as a whole reacted violently against the proclamation of a crucified Jesus as the Messiah and indeed fastened on this aspect of Paul’s message to distort his mission before the rulers of the city by falsely representing that he was putting forward someone named Jesus as a political rival to the emperor, v. 7.
The tumult stirred up by these fanatical Jews led to Jason and others being required to give security for the keeping of the peace, which in turn made it expedient for Paul to leave the city in the interests of the cause of Christ.
Nevertheless, some of the Jews had been persuaded by Paul and evidently consorted with him and Silas in separation from the synagogue. With them was a great multitude of devout Greeks (i.e., proselytes) and quite a number of the chief women of the city.
Although we need not suppose that the three Sabbath days indicate the length of Paul’s stay, it is evident from many considerations that he could not have been in the city for more than a few weeks. The brevity of his stay makes more amazing the wonderful results which were achieved. The narrative in the Acts is very condensed but a careful study of the two letters which Paul wrote to the church there very shortly after his departure throws a flood of light on the amazing work of God in that great city of perhaps 200,000 souls and may well humble us as we contrast conditions among us today. Let us then look briefly at these two Epistles in order to fill in the bare outline given in the Acts.
We do not read of any miraculous ‘signs’ at Thessalonica but the Gospel came to them not merely in words but in the power of the Holy Ghost, 1 Thess. 1. 5. The consequence was that, although the message came through men hitherto unknown and disowned by the religious leaders, the note of divine authority was recognized by the many who received it as the word of God. In such it worked effectively, 2. 13 A.V. Could it be that the lack of power and authority so evident today is partly due to the false idea that the reiteration of truth in word only suffices to fulfil the purpose of God? How often has the glib quotation of Isaiah 55. 10,11 been made a warrant for the comfortable assumption that the mere recital of Scripture must necessarily accomplish results, whilst the important qualification has been ignored - ‘so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth’. The preacher needs to be not a mere quoter of Scripture but the mouthpiece of God: ‘if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God’, 1 Pet. 4. 11. Paul was such a mouthpiece and the reasons are not far to seek.
Words cannot adequately convey the energy and exuberance which Paul brought to his task, but it was the character of the preacher which enabled God to invest his ministry with power and authority. The Thessalonians could see what sort of man he was, 1. 5. They were struck with his honesty of purpose and with his evident desire to please God rather than man, 2. 3-6. He could boldly call upon them to acknowledge that he had manifested holiness of character in the sight of God, acting in perfect righteousness toward them and behaving so that his reputation was unblemished, 2. 10.
The Immediate Effects
From what we are told in Acts 17, it is evident that the congregation could have included but few Jews. The great majority were Gentiles and although many of them must have received some instruction in the synagogue as proselytes, this could only have been very superficial if we are to judge from the fact that Paul could speak of them generally as having turned to God from idols, 1 Thess. 1. 9. It is evident from 4. 3-7 that they were surrounded by the immoralities common to heathen communities. Yet their work of faith, their labour of love and patience of hope made such an indelible impression on Paul that he remembered it without ceasing, 1.3. They became imitators of the apostle and of his Lord, in Spirit-imparted joy enduring much affliction for Christ’s sake, 1. 6; cf. 2.14. In turn they became examples to believers in the whole of Greece (Macedonia and Achaia, 1.7). Catching the infection of zeal from Paul, they sounded out the word of God with such thoroughness that Paul found everywhere that the news had preceded him, 1. 8. Despite the intense persecution to which they were exposed, the report of Timothy, bringing good tidings of their faith and love, showed that Paul’s anxiety about them was largely unnecessary, 3. 6. He was delighted to hear of their love one to another but at the same time he prayed that they might increase in it, not only toward one another but ‘toward all men’. Was this a gentle preparation for a stronger hint in 4. 9-10? They had been examples to all, not only to those in Macedonia but also to believers in Achaia, but when he speaks of the love that they showed to the brethren, he mentions only Macedonia. Is it possible that provincial rivalries surviving from their unconverted days hindered the full flow of love to those in the other province of Greece? Paul was too tactful to say so, but did he hint at it when he added ‘but we exhort you, brethren, that ye abound more and more’?
His two Epistles reveal that, despite the brevity of his stay among them and the fact that much of his time was taken up in earning his living, he was able to impart a tremendous amount of instruction. This reflects great credit, not only on his ability as a teacher, but on the spiritual appetite and capacity of the converts. Apart from what we would regard as the essentials of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15. 3-4), he had taught them to look for the coming of Christ, 1. 10. He had told them of their call into the kingdom and glory of God and had exhorted them to walk worthily of this calling, 2. 12. They had been given realistic warnings about persecution, 3. 4, and very practical instruction about personal sanctification with an added warning of the consequence of disobedience. When the teaching of prophecy is now at a discount in many quarters, it is significant that, although time was so pressing, he included the ‘times and seasons’ in his teaching. They had attended to such good effect that he could say it was unnecessary for him to write on the subject because they understood perfectly (accurately) about the day of the Lord. The second Epistle (2. 3-5) discloses that his teaching of prophecy included a good deal of instruction about the Man of Sin. The attentive reader will notice how in many parts of the Epistles Paul is able to take for granted the fact that the believers in Thessalonica are well grounded in the doctrines of the faith. Is it not legitimate to ask whether we have been too superficial in our instruction of young believers? Have we underestimated the capacity for truth which the Holy Spirit can impart when it is ministered by Him through men of grace and spiritual discernment?
The Believers’ Progress
In addition to what has already been implied in the foregoing remarks, we now draw attention to another astonishing feature of apostolic work which reflects the amazing spiritual progress of some of the early converts. We refer to what has previously been noted in our comments on Acts 14. 23 in connection with the Churches of Galatia - the early emergence of men raised up of God to care for the flock. The Thessalonians were exhorted to recognize those who laboured among them and (notice the order) were over them in the Lord and who admonished them. The word ‘elders’ is used in Acts 14. 23, but here the more general phraseology beautifully fits the exhortation that the saints were to esteem these men in love, not so much on account of their position but for their work’s sake, 5. 12,13. We are not suggesting that in a well established church it would be fitting to recognize as an elder one newly-come to the faith. When writing to Timothy concerning the affairs of the established assembly at Ephesus, Paul warned him against this, 1 Tim. 3. 6. But in Thessalonica we are dealing with primitive conditions and the emergence of such men testifies to the spiritual progress which is possible when the Spirit of God has His way.
Paul’s Example to Elders
These men could hardly fail to be influenced by Paul’s wonderful example in his care for the believers. He sought nothing from them but was gentle among them as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. He was well pleased to impart to them not only the Gospel of Christ but his own soul; just as a nursing mother nourishes her child of her own substance, so he was willing to pour out his own soul for their spiritual good. To this he added his duties as a father to exhort and to encourage, dealing with each of them personally, 2. 1-11. His affection for them made him feel bereaved when he was forced to leave them, and he prayed exceedingly night and day that he might be allowed to see their faces. His anxiety lest their faith should fade under persecution was an almost insupportable burden but when he received a reassuring report from Timothy it was like new life to him, 2. 17; 3. 5-10. We cannot venture an opinion as to how far the local elders were able to emulate Paul in their work of admonishing the disorderly, encouraging the fainthearted and supporting the weak, whilst being longsuffering to all, 5. 14-15, but we venture to say that if there were more elders today like Paul then there might be more assemblies like Thessalonica.
It is reasonable to conclude from later references to Macedonia (1 Cor. 16. 5; Acts 20. 1-3) that Paul was able to include Thessalonica in later itineraries. We are not given any details but we note the fact that it was the apostle’s custom when possible to revisit churches he had established.
To be followed by ‘Corinth’.