1 Thessalonians 1
Last week I introduced a new series, ‘Mining the Word‘, where we will have a semi-indepth Bible study, one verse at a time, through different books of the Bible. We’re starting with 1 Thessalonians so if you missed last week’s post, go check it out right now.
This week, we’re going to be looking at 1 Thessalonians 1:1. But before we do, let’s take a broad, overhead look at chapter one as a whole.
1 Thessalonians is a unique book in that Paul spends an inordinate amount of time thanking God for the Thessalonian believers. Paul normally includes a thanksgiving but he rarely spills as much ink on it as he does here. To compare, in 1 Corinthians he spends 6 verses on a thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 1:4-9). Likewise, in Ephesians there’s barely a verse of thanksgiving before he moves on to praying for them (Ephesians 1:15-16). In Colossians, there are 6 verses (Colossians 1:3-8). It’s obvious that Paul’s norm is to spend a handful of verses on thanksgiving before moving on to more pressing issues. But 1 Thessalonians doesn’t conform to the norm.
So you may be wondering, how much time does Paul spend on his thanksgiving in 1 Thessalonians? Two and a half chapters. Paul’s thanksgiving in this little book extends from chapter 1, verse 2 all the way to chapter 3, verse 10. This means that all of chapters one and two are focused on giving thanks for what God has done through the congregation at Thessalonica.
As we work our way through these chapters, the reason for this extended thanksgiving should become clear.
It should be noted that Paul gives thanks by recounting his relationship with the congregation at Thessalonica and thanking God for what he has done in their lives. Since we’re focusing on chapter one for the next few weeks, let’s lay out a quick outline of the chapter:
1 Thessalonians 1:1 – Paul’s Letter is Addressed
1 Thessalonians 1:2-4 – A Brief Summary of Paul’s Whole Thanksgiving
1 Thessalonians 1:5 – Paul’s Preaching in Power
1 Thessalonians 1:6-10 – The Thessalonian Believer’s Response to the Gospel
With this outline in mind, let’s dig in!
1 Thessalonians 1:1 – Paul’s Letter is Addressed
“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 Thessalonians 1:1
From Paul, Silas, and Timothy…
As we’ve already noted, this letter was not from Paul alone but from Paul, Silvanus (or Silas), and Timothy. There are a couple of things worthy of note as we look at this address.
The two letters to the Thessalonians are the only two letters in which Paul does not give himself some sort of title. For example, in 1 Corinthains, he is “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1). In Romans, he’s “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). To the Ephesians, he writes, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” You get the picture. These introductions contrast with his opening to the Thessalonians where he is simply, “Paul.”
There are a couple of possible reasons as to why this may be the case. Paul isn’t defending his apostleship or teaching in this letter as he does in his letters to the Corinthians or Galatians. On the contrary, he and the Thessalonians seem to have a very positive relationship. So he has no need to claim any title. In other words, to his friends, he’s simply Paul.
Another possible reason for the plain introduction is the fact that 1 and 2 Thessalonians were both some of Paul’s earliest letters. So he may have simply not yet developed the habit of adding anything after his name.
To The Church of the Thessalonians…
The other thing to note in the address is the recipient. Paul breaks with convention by addressing this letter to the ‘church of the Thessalonians in God’ rather than his usual ‘church of God in [location].’ Again, this is probably a reflection of the early date of this letter. Paul hadn’t yet developed all of the usual conventions that would eventually characterize the way he addressed his epistles.
Another thing to consider at this point is the word translated ‘church’ in most English versions of the Bible.
The Greek word here, ekklesia, is a word that had no religious significance in Paul’s day. Ekklesia was a secular word that was used often in the Greek world to denote the citizens of a city. In particular, it included “those who are summoned and called together by the herald” (Kittel). When the citizens of a city were summoned and gathered together, they were an ekklesia. This is made even clearer when we realize that the word itself is made up of two parts: ek meaning ‘out of’ and kaleo meaning ‘to call.’ The ekklesia are, quite literally, citizens who have been called out.
With this in mind, it should become apparent that the word ‘church’ was never meant to serve as a name in the way we normally think of it. It was simply who they were. When Paul addresses this letter to the ‘church of the Thessalonians in God,’ he isn’t indicating a name they might have on a sign out front. He’s addressing this letter to those citizens of God’s Kingdom who happen to live in Thessalonica.
But unlike secular assemblies which found their identity in the city where they were found, this ekklesia‘s identity was rooted in God and his Kingdom. This is why Paul adds “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” after “the church of the Thessalonians.” Had he just addressed this letter to the “church of the Thessalonians”, it would have appeared that it was written to the democratic assembly that governed the city of Thessalonica.
This also may explain why Paul changed his address in later letters to the ‘Church of God in…” Paul wanted it to be clear that they weren’t, first of all, citizens of Thessalonica. They were citizens of God’s Kingdom who happened to reside in Thessalonica. The same could be said for Christians around the world today.
We are not Christian Americans. We are American Christians – citizens of God’s Kingdom who happen to live in America. This is important because it reminds us that we have more in common with our fellow Kingdom citizens in China, Iraq, and France than we do with our next-door neighbors who are not followers of Christ.
In God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…
Though easily missed, these two phrases carry a great deal of weight. Paul is expressing an incredibly high view of Jesus in this verse – essentially putting God and Jesus on equal footing. This might not be that surprising for the average Christian believer but it would have been very surprising for early Jews – blasphemous even. It also directly contradicts the idea that some scholars have put forward that such a high view of Jesus was gradually developed over decades. Instead, we see Paul, in his earliest letter no less, describing Jesus as equal with God.
It’s also worth noting that generally (there may be an exception or two), when Paul uses the title ‘Lord’, he’s talking about Jesus. When he uses the more general ‘God’, he’s speaking of the Father. In this phrase, Paul tells his readers that, as Christians, we are now in Christ. And if we are in Christ, then we are in God. It’s just as Jesus told his disciples, “you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20).
God is our author and source as well as our goal and end. We receive our identity from him. We are made complete in him. And we are united with other believers only insofar as we are united with him.
We might be tempted to quickly read past this phrase in order to get to the meat but don’t. There’s meat enough right here in these few words.
Grace to You and Peace
This is another phrase that we might pass over without thought. It is the way Paul opens all of his letters – the greeting he always seems to give. But this isn’t mere window dressing. Paul is summing up the gospel in his greeting.
God’s grace is what saves us. Until we experience his grace, we will wander aimlessly and without hope. But once we come into contact with it, something happens. We’re changed – transformed! We’re made citizens of God’s Kingdom and given new life. And God’s grace is the foundation of it all. After all, as Paul wrote elsewhere, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). If it hadn’t been for God’s grace, we would have remained the enemies of God.
But God’s grace does not leave us where it found us. His grace leads us into peace. Though don’t be mistaken. This kind of peace is so much more than a lack of conflict. This kind of peace, shalom as the Hebrews would have said, is wholeness – completeness – everything functioning as it was intended to.
Through God’s grace, he leads us into true peace. He takes our broken lives, our confused identities, our sinful actions and words, and he transforms them.
We are born again – through grace and into peace.
Is this a simple greeting? No, these words are so much more. Take the time to taste their richness.
For Next Week…
I was planning on working through the first four verses of chapter one but things didn’t work out the way I planned. If we continue this way, this will be a very long series. I guess we’ll see next week but I’m hoping to get through verse 4.
In the meantime, comment with any of your thoughts on verse one. What is God revealing to you through your reading of 1 Thessalonians.
I look forward to hearing all about it.
Additional Resources mentioned this week:
Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Volume III) (electronic ed., Vol. 3, p. 513). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.