How the west heard the gospel
Possibly one of the most understated words from Paul comes near the beginning of I Thessalonians, “You know, brothers that our visit to you was not a failure” (2:1). Paul literally spent just 3 weeks in Thessalonica and the church exploded from there (Acts 17:1-10). You might say the birth of the church in Thessalonica put Christianity on the world map and made it a true “world religion”. Without a map it is hard to see, but with churches at Philippi and Thessalonica, the gospel had jumped the Mediterranean Sea and landed on another continent!
It all started in Acts 16 when Paul had a vision of a man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul set sail, and for the first time the gospel came to Europe. At that moment, Paul must have seen much more than a continent for Christ. Macedonia was the kingdom of Alexander the Great. Almost 400 years before, Alexander said God had sent him “to unite and to reconcile the world”. He had said his aim was to marry the East to the West. Alexander, like the Romans after him, used brutality to achieve this united empire and it became more about his power than people’s needs. Maybe these very ideas were in the heart of Paul as he landed.
Paul recently planted a church in Philippi, which was named after Alexander’s father, and another church in Thessalonica, which was named after Alexander’s half sister. The whole territory was saturated with memories of Alexander, but this time it would be united by the love of Christ.
I Thessalonians is another practical book on Christian living in a place of persecution and in light of the anticipated return of Christ. Paul called the new converts to live always ready, knowing the Lord could come any minute. We too are called to live this way, ready at any moment to honor God with our actions and words.
Apparently, the church in Thessalonica took Paul’s advice seriously and began living in such a radical way that the Jews began persecuting them. Remember, in Greece the setting is no longer primary Jewish so the Jews would have been very protective of their congregations. They saw Christianity as a threat to their way of life, which was already in the minority throughout Greece.
The two books to the Thessalonian church give us great examples of how we can be tempted to be “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good!” It seems the church had taken their “readiness” to an extreme. II Thessalonians is written to clear up a misconception about the second coming of Christ that was taught in the first letter. In I Thessalonians 5:2 and 6, Paul wrote the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night and he urged watchfulness. However, this teaching produced an unhealthy situation where men did nothing but watch and wait and choose not to work. I can see them with their bags packed, looking to the sky while their crops wither or their businesses fail. The letters to the Thessalonians remind us of the reality of the spiritual world, and what we know and see will be recreated in the new heavens and earth. In the same letter where Paul tells us to keep our eye to the sky and our hearts ready, we are also warned God has called us to live here and serve the human race until He returns.
Tips for Reading (Interpretation tip #6)
(Note: This section is help for Bible Reading in general. It has been building throughout the year under the topics of Observation (what the Scripture says), Interpretation (what it means) and Application (what it means to your life). Feel free to look back over past weeks to get the whole picture.
The letters to the Thessalonians offer a great segue to our topic of interpretation within the context of the book. The Thessalonians themselves took what Paul had written out of context, and as a result got their lives out of whack.
So with that warning in mind, let’s look at a type of context which we will call theological context. Theological context asks us to look where the passage or book fits in the unfolding of Scripture. To be very clear - the Bible was not dropped out of the sky as a finished piece of work. It took thousand of years to put it all together. During that time, God revealed more and more of His message to the authors. It’s important to locate your passage in the flow of Scripture. If you are studying Noah in Genesis, then you’re before the Ten Commandments, before the Sermon on the Mount, etc. In fact, Noah didn’t have a scrap of biblical text to work with. So what does that tell you when you read “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord?” How did he find favor with God? It was not by obeying the 10 commandments and it was not by memorizing scripture. Maybe it was not through anything he did!
With the passage we read today it’s easy for us, 2,000 years later, to look at the Thessalonians and say, how could they stop working and wait for the return of Christ? However, let’s consider where they were in the timeline of Christianity? They were only a few years removed from the incarnation, so they never would have imagined that 2,000 years later we would be shaking our heads at their actions! As you can see, understanding the Biblical account in light of the timeline of scripture can help understand the real picture.
Notes from David's Journal
I Thessalonians is a very obvious message: keep being faithful until the Lord returns. Evidently, with the imminent expectation of Jesus' return, Thessalonian Christians actually stopped working. Laziness consumed the Christian community. No work was being done. That's why Paul exhorted them that any person who doesn't work, doesn't eat! Paul actually spends some time describing what it's going to be like when the Lord returns, when we receive our resurrection bodies.The most important message of the book is Jesus will return one day. We don't know when. Only the Father in heaven knows the exact time or moment. Until that moment, those of us who believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior are to be faithful, every day living for Jesus, letting the world see our light shine.Here's a vital question for all of us to consider: If Jesus came back today, would He be proud of who we are and how we are living? If not, we should change. If so, all praise to Him!