Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians contains references to a number of events that are recorded in the Book of Acts. That makes it fairly straightforward to identify when the Epistle was penned and what were the circumstances that surrounded its writing.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:2, the apostle makes reference to the shameful treatment that he received in Philippi. Acts 16:22,23 records how he and Silas were publicly beaten in that city and then cast into prison. (Of course, those events led to the conversion of the Philippian jailor and his family. And an ecclesia was formed.)
Paul traveled next to Thessalonica, which was about 80 miles southwest of Philippi. He preached in the synagogue for three weeks (Acts 17:1, 2). The result was that “a great multitude” of Greeks, “some” Jews, and “not a few” women from leading families believed (v 4).
Yet the apostle’s preaching efforts were once again met with violence. Envy reared its head, and the unbelieving Jews started a riot (vv 5, 6).
The members of the Thessalonian ecclesia sent Paul and Silas away by night. They traveled 50 miles and came to Berea (v 10). Undeterred by what had happened in Philippi and Thessalonica, Paul and Silas began to preach in the synagogue of Berea.
How comforting it must have been to them to find a host of people who “received the word with all readiness of mind” and “who searched the Scriptures daily” (v 11). Many people from different backgrounds and all walks of life accepted the Truth (v 12).
But their good work was thwarted by the arrival of Jews from Thessalonica. Like a pack of wolves on the hunt, they had tracked down Paul and Silas. They quickly set about stirring up the people of the city and turning them against the Christian community (v 13).
The ecclesia sent Paul away. He traveled to Athens, which was 200 miles to the south. But Silas and Timothy stayed back in Berea (v 14).
After his safe arrival in Athens, Paul sent for Silas and Timothy to join him (v 15). While he waited for them, he gave his famous address on Mars Hill about the Athenians’ Unknown God (vv 22-31).
Silas and Timothy came to Paul, although their arrival is not recorded. Their time spent together was not long. Paul was filled with godly concern about the wellbeing of the Thessalonians. So, before he departed for Corinth, he sent Timothy to see how they were doing (1Thes 3:2). It appears that he sent Silas away as well, although there is no indication of where he went. It is possible that he returned to Berea.
By the time Timothy returned from his trip, Paul had moved on to Corinth and had begun his preaching work there. Acts 18 records the joy he experienced when he heard Timothy’s report about the Thessalonian ecclesia:
“And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ” (v 5).
The KJV rendering “pressed in the spirit” is quite literal. It is exactly the same translation as offered by Young’s Literal Translation. However, it does not fully convey the sense of what Paul was feeling. The Greek word translated “pressed” is “sunecho”. It is a word associated with very strong emotion. Notice how it is translated in Luke 8, for example:
“And Jesus said, Who touched me? When all denied, Peter and they that were with him said, Master, the multitude throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45).
Hearing of the faithfulness of his brethren and sisters in Thessalonica was an incredible motivator for Paul:
“Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith” (1Thes 3:7).
It energized him. And his preaching was quite successful: the chief ruler of the Corinthian synagogue and even his replacement were converted to the Truth. It is a compelling illustration of the tremendous impact that our faithfulness can have on others.
Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, probably from Corinth, in response to the report that he received from Timothy about the faithfulness of the Thessalonians. Chapter 3 offers particular insight into Paul’s relationships with the members of the ecclesia. It is a thought-provoking and exhortative illustration of God’s ideal of what interactions among brothers and sisters should be.
In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts his readers to focus their attention on the needs of others and not just on themselves:
“Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, NKJV).
Paul’s interactions with the Thessalonian ecclesia are an illustration of those words being put into practice.
In 1 Thessalonians 3:7, the apostle makes reference to the afflictions and distresses that he was experiencing. He is not specific about what was troubling him, but other parts of the New Testament provide insight into what was wrong. Acts 16 and 17 record the violence and near escapes he had experienced in Macedonia; Acts 17:32 notes that he was mocked after giving his address on Mars Hill. Then he moved to Corinth where he might have been quite sick. Some commentators interpret 1 Corinthians 2:3 as an indicator that Paul suffered from malaria during his time there. Regardless of the exact nature of his illness, his poor health was readily apparent:
“For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2Cor 10:10).
Despite the many hardships that he was personally experiencing, however, Paul’s mind kept drifting back to his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica. He was worried about their spiritual wellbeing. Even though his own difficulties were alleviated by the presence of Silas and Timothy, Paul put the needs of the Thessalonian ecclesia ahead of his own and sent Timothy to minister to them.
Paul writes that he dispatched Timothy to the Thessalonians when he “could no longer forbear” (1Thes 3:1). And he repeats the phrase in verse 5. It is evident that he considered Timothy to be extremely valuable to his ministry. Yet Paul preferred for him to be of service to the Thessalonians. His willingness to dispatch Timothy to aid them is an illustration of the self-sacrifice for one another that is one of the highest ideals to which we have been called.
Timothy’s name means “valued of God”. It was quite appropriate for him. He and the members of his family probably learned the Truth during one of Paul’s early visits to Lystra and Derbe, which are recorded in Acts 14.
Upon completing his preaching in that part of the world, Paul returned to Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Council. It was a meeting of great importance. The details are recorded in Acts 15. There the disciples decided on the contentious issue of whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised. It was determined that they did not, and the elders prepared letters to send throughout the Christian world to share their decision. They also appointed Paul, Barnabas and Silas, among others, to take the letters to the ecclesias (Acts 15:22, 23).
It was on that journey that Paul brought Timothy onto his team of missionaries. Timothy seemed ideal for the task. He was a young disciple with a good reputation, and he was half Jewish and half Greek (Acts 16:1, 2). Paul circumcised him and put him to work in helping to deliver the Jerusalem Council’s ruling on circumcision (vv 3, 4).
No details are recorded about Timothy’s activities in Acts 16 and 17. All we know is that he stayed with the apostle Paul throughout all of the hardships they endured. He remained faithful. That was, of course, not the case with all of the apostle’s traveling companions. (Demas, for example, forsook him, and the Truth: 2Tim 4:10).
The very fact that Timothy stayed with the apostle Paul throughout the trials they experienced made him of immense value. It is a lesson that should not be lost on us. Being constant in our service to God — attending memorial service and Bible class, praying, sharing the Word with those in and out of the ecclesia — can be a great source of strength to our brothers and sisters even if we do not do any specific thing that is worthy of special note.
A need did ultimately arise, however, for a service that it seems that Timothy was particularly suited to provide. The apostle Paul had need of someone “to establish” and “to comfort” the Thessalonians after his brief stay with them. He was particularly concerned that they would be steadfast in the face of afflictions. The Greek word translated “comfort” in 1 Thessalonians 3:2 is “parakaleo”, meaning “to exhort”. In fact, that is exactly how it is translated in Acts 14:22:
“Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”
Timothy had probably seen Paul do that. (Remember Acts 14:22 is about Timothy’s home ecclesia.) It is likely that he had witnessed Paul give the same message to his ecclesia about faithfulness through tribulation that needed to be given to the Thessalonians. And who better to give it than someone who had both heard Paul say the words and who had personally followed the instructions that were given? The Truth was quite young in the Roman world at this point. There were not many people who had endured trial for the Truth over an extended period of time. Timothy had. So, the Christians of Thessalonica would be more inclined to give ear to what he had to say.
1 Thessalonians 3:5 states that Paul had dispatched Timothy to Thessalonica because he was concerned that the “tempter” might have “tempted” them. The Greek word translated “tempter” is “peirazo”. Reflecting the views of mainstream Christianity, the People’s New Testament commentary writes, “The tempter is Satan.” Matthew Henry concurs; in commenting on this passage, he states, “The devil is a subtle and unwearied tempter, who seeks an opportunity to beguile and destroy us.”
The historical context, however, makes it quite clear that the apostle’s concern was the Jews in Thessalonica. They had demonstrated their determination to oppose the Christian community, and they had not hesitated to use violence in trying to achieve their ends (1Thes 2:18; Acts 17:5-10). Paul was worried that the faith of some in the fledging ecclesia would wilt in the face of such opposition and that they would return to Judaism to escape persecution. It is a concern that appears throughout the epistles of the New Testament (e.g., Heb 12:4-8).
So, 1 Thessalonians 3:5 is a great passage to share with an interested friend. It shows that viewing “Satan” as the source of temptation can stem from an overly simplistic interpretation of a passage. And it is an example of how comparing verses across the Bible can unlock their meaning and add to our understanding.
Focusing on the positive
Paul was thrilled with the good report he received back from Timothy about the Thessalonians (1Thes 3:6,7). What Paul states in just a few words of this epistle gives us a great deal of exhortation about our interactions with others, how they should be reflected in our conversations, and what (in general) our relationships with others in the Truth should be.
It is a characteristic of faithful men and women to rejoice in the good being done by others. For example, when John writes Gaius in his third epistle, he speaks of “rejoicing greatly” over the good that he heard Gaius was doing:
“For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth (3John 3).
This verse shows that, when John talked to others about Gaius, he wanted to hear of the positive things that he was doing. And he wanted to know specifics: ‘Well, what exactly is Gaius doing?’ The answer came to him that he was being hospitable to traveling preachers of the Gospel (vv 5,6). And when John heard this, he said that nothing gave him greater joy:
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (v 4).
Nothing gave him greater joy. This was the disciple whom Jesus loved, and nothing gave him greater joy than to hear of the humble service of a brother in Christ.
Let us try, this week in particular, to bring this aspect of the beloved disciple’s life into our own. When we speak of others, let us focus on the good things they are doing. And let us talk about specifics. Let us do that so that the good things we hear will encourage us and challenge us in our service. And, more than that, let us, like John, rejoice greatly in what we hear — for the angels and our Heavenly Father are rejoicing as well.
Paul thanked God for his relationship with the Thessalonians and the joy it gave him:
“For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God?” (1Thes 3:9).
In his statement there is a recognition that our friends are given to us by God. (Otherwise, why would he thank God for them?) And we are given are friends for the purpose of supporting one another in faith and bringing honor to God.
The apostle writes that he prayed “exceedingly” for the Thessalonians “night and day” (1Thes 3:10). His words demonstrate the tremendous importance Paul placed on prayer, and his understanding that we can extend a great deal of help to each other by praying for one another. Prayer is an especially valuable means of supporting our brothers and sisters who are physically far away from us, as Paul was from Thessalonica at the time this epistle was written.
Paul set himself, Silvanus, and Timothy as standards to which the Thessalonians should aspire in showing love to one another (1Thes 3:12). It is an indicator of how committed those three were to following in the footsteps of the Lord. The apostle’s words show how important our example is in our efforts to preach the Word.
The goal of Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians was to prepare them for Christ:
“To the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” (1Thes 3:13).
His words are a succinct statement and a compelling reminder of what the goal of our interactions with each other should be. Our relationships are a precious resource and one of the most powerful tools that God has given us for transforming our lives, as well as the lives of others.