1 Thessalonians 2:13–20
When people hear the gospel for the first time, their response can go either way. Some may stumble over the speech of the preacher, focus on the slightest disagreement or criticize something they find offensive. That’s why preachers and evangelists are always requesting prayer as they present Christ’s message. Eternity hangs in the balance.
When the Apostle Paul heard that the Thessalonians had not only responded well to the gospel — as evidenced by the way they were still faithful and well-grounded many months after he had birthed the church and had to leave abruptly — and had received his message as “the word of God,” he was overwhelmed with gratitude.
True, the message had been preached by a human and no doubt the sermon was voiced in Paul’s distinctive dialect. But, as with Scripture itself, “Holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Both the delivery of the message and its reception are primary works of the Spirit.
Recalling our Lord’s “parable of the four kinds of soil” in Matthew 13, the Thessalonians were clearly good soil. Their response to Paul’s preaching was proof (1:3). Receiving the message as God’s word and repenting (1:9–10), they quickly “became imitators of the churches in Judea.”
Imitation is a huge thing in Scripture (I Cor. 4:16, 11:1). Now the church at Thessalonica was imitating — without even knowing it! — the church in Judea. As it suffered greatly for doing the work of Christ, the Judean church was showing all who would come after them how to be faithful in persecution.
God uses suffering. In 3:4 Paul reminds the Thessalonians that “when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction.” This faithful pastor had prepared them for the coming trials. Toward the conclusion of the first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas returned to the young churches they had just birthed with a follow-up, strengthening “the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:21–23). Between here and heaven, expect turbulence!
In contrast to the way the Thessalonians received the word, “some of your own countrymen” rejected God’s message and, like the Jews who had fought the apostle on every side, “they are not pleasing to God.” As they hinder the evangelistic message on its way to the unsaved, these people are in big trouble.
We are reminded of Genesis 15:16, that “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (also see Lev. 18:24–28). God’s judgment was headed in this direction, at which time it would be said of them “that the wrath of God has come upon them at last.”
Since Paul wrote this letter sometime around AD 50, he doubtless knew about the massacre of the Jews at Passover in the temple precincts a year earlier. Also about this time, Emperor Claudius was expelling all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). In AD 70 Jerusalem would be destroyed amid much suffering and slaughter. For the unbelieving persecutors of God’s faithful, bad times lay ahead. The suffering God’s faithful were enduring, in contrast, was redemptive and useful for the Holy Spirit as He sanctified this young church.
Paul was chomping at the bit to see the Thessalonians, a young congregation needing the encouragement and grounding he could provide. As he had tried to get away numerous times, “Satan hindered us.” While Satan gets the blame for blocking Paul’s travel to Thessalonica, in Acts 16:6–10 it was the Holy Spirit preventing the missionary team from going in certain directions. God’s servants must know how to discern His leadership from Satan’s opposition. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27).
Paul loved these people. He had the heart of a pastor. He calls them his hope, joy, crown of exultation, and then again his glory and joy. He once more remains the gold standard for God’s servants who would bring the gospel to a lost world.
By Joe McKeever
Pastor, writer and cartoonist from Ridgeland, Mississippi.