One of the reasons Paul was writing the Thessalonians was his desire to share his joy and praise their faith. Paul’s praise for the Thessalonians is also heartening to readers of this letter today. Many Christians in America and in the West in general sense that the church has lost touch with the spirit that animated the early believers. The New Testament enables us to access their experience – an example that can still instruct and inspire us. Paul’s praise for the Thessalonians is especially important, since he sees this church as a model for all others. So fully did Paul approve of their reputation that he could respond, “We need not say anything” (v. 8), since their actions said enough. In the last three verses of this opening section of Paul’s letter, he notes three characteristics that made their reputation so commendable: theirs was a gospel-spreading, a God-serving, and a Christ-awaiting reputation. If we will follow this model, we may gain not only the praise of the Lord’s servants but also a strong assurance of Christ’s saving presence in our midst.
Paul had heard, first, about the Thessalonians’ gospel-spreading reputation: “The word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia” (v. 8). Paul heard this news from traveling Christians (such as Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth) who brought reports of the wider world. Since Paul says that the Thessalonians’ “faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (v. 8), many such travelers would have passed on the gospel-spreading reputation of this church.
Note that it was not just any witness that the Thessalonians gave. It was the “word of the Lord” that they received and spread. It was their belief that the gospel is the very Word of God that empowered their witness. We, too, must be completely persuaded about the divine character of the Bible if we are to have a similar impact. This is why attacks on the divine authority and inerrancy of Scripture always weaken the church and its witness.
As word spread through Greece and beyond about the Thessalonian Christians, the news told not only of their God-revealed message but also of their faith in it. When Paul says that the gospel sounded forth from them, he adds, “Your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (v. 8). This reputation for faith in God likely began at home with not only husbands and wives but also with their friends and neighbors. So profound was the change among so many people that news of a significant event in Thessalonica began spreading. Especially when the Christians would not give up their faith in the midst of persecution, but responded to trials with a steadfast hope and the “joy of the Holy Spirit”, more and more people took notice of these believers in Jesus. Only with the same testimony of faith that the Thessalonians gave, showing the power of the gospel they preached, can any Christians sound forth the Word of the Lord with real credibility and persuasiveness.
Second, the Thessalonians had gained a reputation as a God-serving church: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living true God” (v. 9). The conversion of the Thessalonians began with the manner in which they received Paul and his associates. How people receive a sincere ministry of God’s Word largely determines their spiritual state. Today there are churches that claim the name of Jesus but resist clear and faithful Bible teaching. Such Christians are not likely to advance far in godliness or make much real spiritual impact, however much outward success they might enjoy. Instead, humble Christians who rejoice to have God’s Word opened and who respect faithful Christian leaders are most likely to make a lasting gospel impact.
As Paul preached the Scriptures in Thessalonica, many who heard his message were converted to faith in Christ. Verse 9 sets forth in clear language what this conversion entailed: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Notice how the early Christians understood that becoming a Christian requires a definite and radical break with one’s former life. The Thessalonians recognized that embracing Christ required a revolution in their worship and service; the early Christians saw a basic antithesis that required them to turn to God from the idolatrous culture around them and embrace a distinctive and biblical Christian approach to life, worship, and ministry.
Paul’s statement regarding the Thessalonains’ rejection of idols is particularly poignant when we recognize that the peak of Mount Olympus – the supposed home of the Greek pantheon of gods – was visible from their location a bare fifty miles away. It is less easy, perhaps, for us to see the gods that faith in Christ requires us to renounce today.
An idol is anything that we trust and serve in the place of God. There is nothing wrong with desiring to be successful, but when success provides our identity, significance, and security, we have made it an idol. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with fitness and beauty, but when the focus of our lives is given to glorifying our physique and form, then we are worshiping an idol in the place of God. One of the most common forms of idolatry today is the worship of money and all that it can buy. An idol is something we cannot live without. We must have it, and therefore it drives us to break rules we once honored, to harm others and even ourselves in order to get it. Idols are spiritual addictions that lead to terrible evil.
For this reason, Paul saw the rejection of idols not only as a necessity in Christian conversion but also as part of the deliverance that Christ achieves in our salvation. Believing the gospel and embracing Jesus involves a change of the will from trusting, worshiping, and serving false gods to a new faith in which God is trusted, worshiped, and served through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Here, we have a diagnostic question that we can use to assess ourselves. Do we have a reputation for being radically converted to God and His ways, forsaking the idols of our generation? As individuals, do we exhibit to those who know us a clear rejection of worldly values and a deliberate commitment to the liberating service of God? If we have such a reputation, it will be evident in how we spend our time, use our money, and offer our talents and energies in pursuing a decidedly biblical lifestyle as servants of the Lord.
The third component of the Thessalonians’ exemplary reputation was that they were a Christ-awaiting church. Paul concludes this opening section of his letter by writing that they turned to God in order “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (v. 10). The word that Paul uses for wait (anameno) appears only here in the New Testament. It conveys the idea of patient expectation and trust. The Thessalonian Christians were gospel-spreading and God-serving believers who were persuaded that Christ would return soon to bring the fullness of salvation for which they longed.
This waiting has a passive component, in that the early Christians did not expect to achieve salvation through their own witness and ministry. They were counting on Jesus – the same Savior who had died for their sins – to return in glory to deliver them from evil. Although they were right to expect Christ to come soon, they should have realized that God’s timing is not known to man (5:2). With this in mind the Thessalonians were to live with an eye on the horizon, waiting for Jesus to return and give them victory over the world.
At the same time, the waiting that Paul describes has an important active component. While they were anticipating Jesus’ return, the Thessalonian readers should ready themselves to greet Him. Christians are waiting not merely for the coming of heaven on earth but for Christ Himself, who is coming for us. Jesus Spoke this way to the disciples before departing for the cross: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). The heaven for which we wait is bound up in the person of Jesus, and our expectation is fixed on the One who comes to take us not merely to heaven but to Himself in glory (see Matt 24:45-25:13).
Jesus comes to enter us into His glory, which we anticipate now with great longing, gaining courage and strength to face this dark world. Whatever sorrows we have here, in the age to come we will know only the peace and joy of Christ. A final question to diagnose ourselves as a church and as individual believers. Is it evident to others that we are depending on a power that is not of this earth but comes from heaven through our faith in Christ? Are we seeking rewards and storing treasures in heaven, where our riches never fail or fade? Or are we settling for mere earthly glories because we know so little of the heavenly splendor of God? Jesus declared, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Does our lifestyle give us the reputation of people whose treasure is most truly in the world to come, who dwells there now?
Jesus who died and was raised for our salvation, is coming soon, and then the reputation we have gained by His grace in this world will be the beginning of an eternal legacy. The Bible speaks of an eternal glory for faithful servants of Christ. As the angel proclaimed to Daniel: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).
1Thessalonians 1:8-10 Study Questions:
How would “turning from idols” have been an incredibly difficult thing for the Thessalonians to do?
What might be parallels for us today of turning away from the “powers” of this world to the One true God and His One true Son?
In verses 9-10, Paul describes the conversion of the Thessalonians. What are the elements of conversion Paul describes here?
In what specific ways can you as a community of believers live in a way that the story of the gospel becomes known around you?