Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“I really can’t say enough good about you!” So echoes Paul’s sentiment at the beginning of Thessalonians.
He has ample reason to express thanks for them in his prayers. He has no doubt of God’s work in them. People enjoy speaking of their faith, and Paul can hold them up as exemplary. Yet all is not perfect. Paul, like a good parent, utilizes the opportunity for praise to inject some hope as well. He outlines here a specific area in which the Thessalonians need further growth, praying for what they can be in light of what they’ve already become. Paul acknowledges the great transformation God the Father, through Son and the Spirit, has already accomplished as the basis for continuing growth into an even greater reputation of faith.
A striking historical background
Paul visits Thessalonica, according to Acts 17, on his second missionary journey. This was an important city, the capital of the Macedonian province, located on an inlet and an important trade route, the Via Egnatia. The converts to his message would have previously participated in the many and sundry cults of this bustling city, prominent among them worship of Roma, the embodiment of the ideals of the Roman Empire. When these people heard Paul’s message and accepted its exclusive call to worship the God of Israel alone, they would have faced not only questions, but also rejection and possibly persecution from their families and neighbors. The historical situation in which they converted set them up for a robust and compelling witness of intense and costly faith.
The work of God
As to be expected in Paul, he casts the human action, as important and praise-worthy as it may be, as thoroughly ensconced in the action of God. His praise for the Thessalonians arises from, is surrounded by, and aims toward the work of God. He begins by saying that the church finds its calling in God and in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Then, if we were to reconstruct the story of the Thessalonians’ active faith, it would proceed with the following points.
Initially, God loved them and chose them (1:4).
This might be an interesting place to engage the doctrine of election. The phrase could point to the Thessalonians’ choice for God, but most commentators take it as referring to God’s choice of them, because of Paul’s other usage of the word for election (Romans 9:11; 11:5, 7, 28). If the divine election is in mind, Paul can assert this only after the fact, after the Thessalonians have decided to follow Christ. Paul often (see also Ephesians 1) appeals to divine election to encourage those who have already chosen for God.
Continuing the story of their faith, the gospel came to them by power, assurance, and the Holy Spirit (1:5). They turned from idols to God (1:9). Jesus rescued them from eschatological wrath (1:10). God is responsible — deserving of thanks — for the three elements Paul mentions about their faith (1:3). These good things happen because they aim all their deeds at God (1:3, 8), hope for Lord Jesus Christ (1:3) as they imitate him (1:6), and accept tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1:6). The work of God — and here it really is no stretch to say the work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — has created and sustained their faith.
And the response of the Thessalonians
Because God has done so, they are worthy of praise because they have turned from their previous religious expressions to serve the living and true God (the jab being that the previous gods were dead and false, 1:9). They are presently imitating Jesus and his apostles (1:6), and are therefore worthy of imitation themselves (1:7). Paul mentions three specific expressions of the Thessalonians’ faith that result in his thankfulness.
Beginning with the last — the endurance of hope — the Thessalonians seem to be particularly good at hoping. At the close of the first chapter, Paul asserts that they are waiting for God’s son from heaven. Paul’s well-known discussion about the return of Christ in chapter 4, shows that they have no doubt Jesus will come again; they only need some reassurance about those who have already died without yet seeing him. Finally, they are encouraging each other with the hope of the return of Christ (5:11).
Paul also expresses gratefulness for their labor of love. Paul doesn’t really even need to teach them about loving each other because God has been their teacher. They have heard it and now done it, loving not only one another, but the whole of the family of God throughout Macedonia (4:10). There is always room for more love, but this is an element of their faith, and to Paul, a vitally important one (think 1 Corinthians 13), in which the Thessalonians excel.
The work of faith
The situation with the first element Paul mentions, however, seems a bit different. He gives thanks for their work of faith (1:3). That the Thessalonians have faith is without question, and that it is working, Paul has also established. Nevertheless, Paul will have much to tell them about work in this letter (2 Thessalonians continues this theme as well, see 2 Thessalonians 3:8-12). He lifts himself and his fellow Christians up as examples of those who worked with diligence even as they were proclaiming the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Paul again stands as an example reminding them two times throughout the letter of the labor he exerted on their behalf (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 3:5; See also 2 Thessalonians 3:8). Paul points to other examples when he admonishes them to respect those who have authority over them, who labor and work among them (5:12-13). Then, he instructs the Thessalonians to continue in their work, specifying even the tangibility of working with your hands, so that need would not exist among the believers and they would give a good witness to those outside the confession (4:11-12). He joins work to love. One way in which they can excel in their love is to work with their hands so that none among them have any need.
Paul’s practical advice to the Thessalonians is that faith and work are not mutually exclusive. They have been transformed by their belief in Christ, but that does not mean that regular life has come to an end. They are still responsible to be faithful in their vocations. For them to continue to grow into their stellar reputation, work needs to be an element right along with faith, hope, and love.