Hope Beyond Hardship | 1 Thessalonians Introduction
Do you have hope amidst all that you face? In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds them of a hope in Jesus Christ that is bigger than their circumstances. Join Dr. Marty Baker as he kicks off our new series in 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Hope Beyond Hardship.
Knowing Old Testament prophecy, and being filled with the presence and insight of the Holy Spirit, Paul, a realist, told us what the times would be like prior to Christ’s return:
1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these. 6 For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. 8 And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected as regards the faith.(2 Tim. 3)
I think most of you are smart enough to realize Paul’s words are being fulfilled before your eyes on a daily basis. No, I don’t think I need to give you examples at this juncture, because you already have illustrations in your mind to validate Paul’s point.
Suffice it to say that as mankind rejects the concept of truth, especially biblical and spiritual truth, the end result is never utopia but always dystopia. Another byproduct of rejecting truth is the opposition to those who represent truth. This is the logical consequence because truth deniers have to seek to silence truth believers in order for their false truths, which masquerade as true truth, to be accepted without exception or rebuttal as they are cunningly woven into the culture.
Standing in the way of those Paul prophesied about is the Church of Jesus Christ, which is composed of small and large bodies of believers worldwide. The Church is, in any culture, the point of spiritual and moral light which seeks to move sinners away from sin and toward a holy relationship with the living God through the embrace of Christ’s life-changing gospel. Sometimes there are victories as sinners become saints through faith in Jesus. But oftentimes, there is covert and overt opposition as sinners, who enjoy their sin and false worldviews, seek to silence believers so they can live as they please.
We are living in times when covert opposition to the faith is becoming more overt by the day. The persecution which used to be “over there” is now rearing its ugly head “over here.” Stand up for sound morals, and you will be shouted down, canceled, and possibly removed from your place of employment. Stand up for the protection of children from being sexualized at a young age, and you will most likely be showcased as part of the problem, not the solution. Stand up for just logical reasoning, and you will be vilified for being unloving, unkind, and intolerant by those who drape themselves in the flag of tolerance. Stand up for biblical truth as it applies to your life, and if it is perceived as a threat to various cultural views, you will be verbally and sometimes legally reprimanded.
Yes, we all know it. The tough times Paul prophesied about are upon us. The question in light of this is: “What now?” More precisely, “How should a Christian live an effective and impactful life when persecution is the order of the day?” “How can we develop a sense of abiding hope amidst the hardness?” The answer to these practical questions is answered most clearly by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians. If you struggle with what you see going on around you and what is coming at you and your family, if you feel like your flame of hope is flickering in the wild winds, a study of this inspired book is most timely. When we are finished with it, your flame will burn brighter with the fuel of hope and joy, and you’ll also know exactly what the Lord desires from you each day until He returns.
To ensure you have a firm understanding of this book, it is important for you to know the answers to all of the background questions which lie behind this unique writing of Paul. The scope of our study at this juncture will seek to address those pertinent questions, so your appreciation and application of this book are enhanced.
Background Questions For The Study Of First Thessalonians
Who Wrote It?
The opening verse of the first chapter answers this question:
1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. (1 Thess. 1)
Further evidence is found in chapter 2:
18 For we wanted to come to you-- I, Paul, more than once-- and yet Satan thwarted us. (1 Thess. 2)
Paul wrote this letter and graciously mentioned his two traveling ministry partners, Silvanus and Timothy.
Technically, the letter is called an epistle, which is just a fancy word for a letter or dispatch to a person or persons. It is used 24 times in the New Testament (Acts 9:2; 15:30; 22:5; 23:25, 33: Romans 16:22; 1 Cor. 5:9; 16:3; 2 Cor. 3:1, 2, 3; 7:8; 10:9, 10 11). 13 of the New Testament epistles were written by Paul and they appear in our Bibles starting with the book of Romans and ending with the book of Philemon. Paul’s epistles, which stand distinct from those of men like James, Peter, John, and Jude (and the unknown author of Hebrews), can be classified in various ways. The following charts, which are derived from my Touring the NT book, show the classifications:
Thematically, 1 and 2 Thessalonians fit underneath the heading about the end times because of the number of verses in these books about the Lord’s future coming. We can also look at Paul’s writings in relation to the times he spent in prison for his faith. This second slide shows you this layout. The pre-imprisonment books were written during Paul’s three missionary journeys as showcased in the book of Acts. Collectively, they contain not only great doctrinal teaching, but many personal notes Paul made concerning these thriving churches he founded.
As you can see from slide three, Paul’s epistles can also be grouped in another fashion: Journey Epistles, Prison Epistles, and Pastoral Epistles. While the Gospels take up sixty-percent of the NT, this does not mean Paul’s epistles, which only make up twenty-four percent of the NT are not as meaningful. Far from it. They form the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and their doctrinal teaching and application of said doctrines to life are invaluable. Paul’s personal letters to the Thessalonians will prove this point as we work our way through them.
Who Was It Written To?
The opening verse tells us Paul wrote this to the church in the city of Thessalonica. Paul’s second missionary journey took him from Seleucia in northern Syria northward to Derbe, where he picked up Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), then northwest to Lystra (where Paul was stoned by Jews and drug out of the city and left for dead on his first missionary journey, Acts 14:19ff), Iconium, and Antioch. From here, he traveled northwest to the coastal city of Troas, where he received his divine call to take the gospel to the Macedonians (Acts 16:6-10). Traveling by sea to the island of Samothrace, Paul’s missionary team headed to the coastal Macedonian city of Neapolis, and then they headed west on the Via Egnatia (a Roman road) to Philippi. Here, Paul obtained his first Macedonian conversion in a wealthy woman named Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). In Philippi, he and Silas were also beaten and thrown into prison because they cast the demon out of a young girl, resulting in her owners losing profit from her abilities with black arts (Acts 16:16-24). God sent an angel to miraculously deliver them, and this resulted in the salvation of the jailer along with his family (Acts 16:25-34). Passing westward through Amphipolis and Apollonia, Paul’s team traveled one-hundred miles to Thessalonica, the Roman capital of Macedonia (made as such by the Romans in 146 B.C.).
As a free city, Thessalonica had its own government. The Roman proconsul, who was the governor of Macedonia, lived in the city, but he wasn’t a major political force. As a port city, Thessalonica enjoyed the wealth of trade and the presence of people from many nationalities. In many respects, it rivaled Corinth and Ephesus as a pivotal and productive financial hub in the known world. Its location on the Via Egnatia also made it a link between Rome in the West and the Far East.
No wonder Paul stopped here and preached and taught the gospel. Converts realized in a city like this would ensure the gospel would be carried to the four corners of the world. According to Acts 17, verses 2 through 4, Paul taught for three weeks in the local Jewish synagogue.
1 Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ." 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. (Acts 17)
His method was always the same. He first presented the factual Old Testament evidence concerning the promised Messiah, and then he demonstrated how Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection fulfilled the prophecies to the letter concerning the coming Savior and King.
His audience, as denoted by Luke, was composed of Jews and God-fearing Greeks, who were Gentiles who had become disillusioned with their polytheism and sought spiritual truth within Judaism. Paul’s teaching and preaching resulted in the salvation of a handful of Jews in a large number of these God-fearers, who had probably become disillusioned with the heavy ritualism and legalism built into Judaism. The simple gospel of Jesus Christ touched them deeply and moved many of them to embrace him as the true Lord and Savior.
Paul probably preached in this significant city for more than three weeks, because according to First Thessalonians 1:9 and 2:14 it appears many of his coverts were Gentile unbelievers wrapped up in the mystery cults of the day. Worshipping idols wore them out because at the end of the day they realized two things: one, you cannot possibly please all of the so-called gods all of the time, and two, the so-called gods had the same sinful issues as the people who sadly worshipped them.
All of this, of course, should make us ask some simple foundational questions. One, is my church Thessalonica? The answer is yes because we are strategically located and positioned to take the gospel to the known world. With 20% of our people moving every year, we clearly have a divine obligation to send the gospel to our nation and the world. Two, am I purposefully positioning myself to share the gospel of Jesus with the lost verbally? Despite all of the problems with the world, our responsibility is always to position ourselves to present the facts concerning the identity and redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus. Three, what belief system are you hanging onto which is not meeting your spiritual needs, nor answering the deepest and most profound questions of life? It is time for you to come to terms with the good news of Christ’s gospel. He lived, died, and rose again so that you might have life to the fullest.
When Was It Written?
To formulate a date for the writing of this particular epistle, we need to consider what happened to Paul toward the end of his ministry in Thessalonica.
When the Jewish synagogue started losing parishioners because of the effective gospel ministry of Paul, they turned to silence him. Acts chapter 17 recounts what happened:
5 But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and coming upon the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. 6 And when they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, "These men who have upset the world have come here also;
7 and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus." 8 And they stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. 9And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them. (Acts 17)
Ostensibly, the Jewish leaders hired local thugs in the marketplace to whip the people into a frenzy concerning Paul’s activity. The mob assembled outside the house of Jason, which is where Paul and his missionary team probably stayed and also taught. When they could not find the missionary team, they leveled false charges against Jason. Such is the method of some of those who hate the truth of the gospel. Instead of debating, they slander the saints with falsehoods. Have you seen any false flag efforts against saints lately?
At no time did Paul call for an insurrection against Caesar. Just because Christians do, in fact, have another king other than the earthly king, doesn’t mean, ipso facto, they don’t honor and respect earthly politicians. Paul, on the contrary, taught submission to Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), and the respect of earthly rulers (Rom. 13:1). Truth, unfortunately, never stops those who oppose it from using cleverly constructed false statements, containing a little truth mixed with untruth, to silence and cancel the Christian’s teaching and testimony. Nothing has changed in the last 2,000 years: those who love are called hateful, those who are tolerant are called intolerant, those who believe in truth are called deniers of the new truth, those who are not bigots are called bigots, and so on and so forth. It’s all propaganda designed to mislead people while also serving to put a lid on what Christians are saying and teaching. Paul knew the drill well.
We know from Acts 17:10, the saints in Thessalonica sent Paul forty-miles northwest to the out-of-the-way little town called Berea for his own safety. Silas, and supposedly Timothy, joined him. Once again, Paul taught the Jews here, and just as the gospel’s presentation led many of them to a faith-relationship with Jesus the Messiah, the trouble-maker Jews from Thessalonica showed up in Berea and started causing problems for Paul and his team (Acts 17:13). Paul was, again, sent with a group of believers south to Athens, in Achaia. Silas and Timothy stayed for a while in Berea, and once they arrived in Athens, Paul told his Berean traveling companions to have Silas and Timothy join him there (Acts 17:15).
From First Thessalonians 3:1-2, we know Timothy eventually made it to Athens, because Paul sent him back to Thessalonica to check up on the condition of the saints there. And from Acts 18, which recounts Paul’s evangelistic work in Corinth, we learn that Silas and Timothy eventually joined him here (Acts 18:5). This dovetails with First Thessalonians 3 where Paul makes this statement:
6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, 7 for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; (1 Thess. 3).
When Timothy came back with his report on the condition of the saints in Thessalonica, is when Paul wrote them a letter to address various issues in the church. Take note if you are a shepherd of a church. The care and condition of the sheep should be constantly on your mind and heart. Are they? A good shepherd resembles Paul. He didn’t just bring people to Jesus so they could be saved; he loved them after the fact and let them know it through word and deed.
Having said all of this, we are in a position to talk about the date of the epistle. Paul’s year and a half ministry in Corinth was so effective that even Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, trusted Jesus as his Messiah and Savior. Many others came to know Christ as well, and this caused the unbelieving Jews to bring Paul up on charges before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. A tattered inscription from Delphi states that Gallio was the proconsul in Corinth in 52 A.D. Proconsuls commenced their one-year terms in the summer, so this would have placed him in Corinth in the summer of A.D. 51. Paul, who had already been in Corinth for some time, probably appeared before Gallio’s bar of justice sometime that summer. This also means Paul probably wrote to the Thessalonians sometime prior to this. Hence, the letter was written either in 50 or 51 A.D., meaning it is also one of the oldest of Paul’s writings.
Why Was Its Purpose?
From a brief reading of the short letter, four distinct purposes can be detected:
First, Paul desired to commend them for their faith despite the hardness they faced from the hostile culture. He was troubled they might have faltered, but news from Timothy showed him they stood firm in the faith (1:3). Believe me, a shepherd can hear nothing greater about the sheep entrusted to him by Jesus. Further, Paul recounted their wonderful conversion and godly example to the rest of the churches in the area (I Thess. 1:5-10, especially verse 8). Note to self: In tough, trying times, saints need to hear what they are doing well in their walks with Christ. Whom are you encouraging? What are you saying to bind up the bruises inflicted on saints by this wild world? What strengths do you see in the saints around you, and are you commending them for those traits?
Second, Paul sought to defend his apostleship and his character along with that of his ministry companions, Silvanus and Timothy. Opponents specifically circulated false charges against Paul to discredit him and destroy his ministry; hence in chapter two he sought to put these vile accusations to rest. What were some of those charges?
- Paul was greedy, only desiring to get money from his converts (2:5).
- Paul was arrogant (2:6).
- Paul was a freeloader (2:9).
- Paul was a coward and was afraid to come back into town (2:16-17).
To name a few. Listen and learn from this: Satan will always seek to discredit those who seek to teach and live the word by attacking their character. Believe me; it is very difficult to thwart ad hominem attacks like these because some people love dirty laundry and disinformation. What other options do the Devil and his minions have if he can’t get a godly person to compromise their belief? Yes, sometimes the attacks are doctrinal, but the ones which are most insidious peck away at the character of a saint. The upshot is this: We in today’s church must be leery of those who would talk down other saints, especially those in leadership positions.
Third, Paul sought to offer correction for their immoral tendencies. We don’t read that they were deeply engaged in immorality; however, Paul’s commands in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 stood as a plumb line by which they should measure their godly progress. The key word in these verses is the word “sanctification” (vv. 3, 7). The point is that God wants our sexual relationships to be pure and holy. In a culture where worship was wedded to the sexual orgies of the various cults, you can readily see the need for this Pauline command. Other sins they may have possibly delved into were a lack of love for each other (4:9-10) and a tendency for some to be lazy (4:11-12). We, too, must ask ourselves the same questions: Where is there immorality in my life? Is their sexual compromise in my life? Do I really love other believers? How do they know I love them? Am I lazy or pulling my load in the church? We will dig into these deeper in future studies, as well as other concepts.
Fourth, Paul gave clear, concise instructions about the return of the Lord Jesus. As we learn from 4:13-5:11, they had taken Paul’s teaching about the kingdom of God and concluded that those who had died in the faith would not get to enjoy the benefits of the coming kingdom. In this passage, Paul corrected this erroneous doctrinal conclusion and showed them how the dead in Christ will be resurrected first and the living righteous second at the Lord’s rapture of the Church. He also demonstrates in these chapters the timing of the second coming, noting that it follows the rapture of the church, thereby teaching us that believers will not go through the seven-year tribulation. This instruction also included positive and practical statements of how saints are supposed to live in this world prior to the Lord’s return (5:12-28). Put simply; Paul challenged the saints to always live holy lives in light of the Lord’s imminent appearance in glory. Question: If the Lord appeared today, would you be ready to see Him? Question: What sin or sins do you need to gain victory over so you are ready to see Christ when He appears for you?
What Is Its Structure?
Paul’s construction of this heartfelt letter moves from the highly personal to the highly practical. Such is the life of a saint. He relishes his personal relationships with other saints and desires for those to be deep and meaningful. On the contrary, he knows the Lord can come back at any moment, so he lives accordingly to bring the Lord glory and honor.
Times are tough, and they’re getting tougher all the time. But there is hope in the hardness. It’s called our faith not just in the Lord who saved us, but in the Lord who is coming back to set things right. I plan on being with Him on the front row.