We are going to be looking at the book of Thessalonians verse by verse, or nearly so, for the next several months, but before we dive in I wanted to say a brief word about about Bible study or Biblical interpretation.
We may not think about this sort of reasoning explicitly, but we use it just the same. It goes like this: If the Bible is God’s Word, and all of it is God’s word, then any of it is God’s Word. As a result of this kind of thinking we allow ourselves to break Scripture down in to finer and finer bits and the smallest snippet, the shortest sentence fragment becomes authoritative.
For example: “Thou shall not kill.’ That’s certainly in the Bible, but does it mean one may not kill in self defense or in defense of his family? May one kill as a police officer when protecting citizens lives and property? How about members of the military, can they kill in defense of their country? Without the context of scripture as a whole wrong conclusions about “Thou shall not kill” could be easily reached.
One writer put it this way, ‘”Text without context is pretext.” Without understanding a scriptural text in relation to the whole of scripture and stripped of any knowledge of who it was written to and why it was written, a scriptural text can be made to say just about anything an interpreter wishes. Proper interpretation of the Bible, therefore, requires us to look at the whole sweep of the scriptures and try to gain at least an inkling of how the portion of scripture we are studying would have been understood by the people to whom it was originally written.
There are some dangers inherent in this type of study as well which we should take pains to avoid:
- Over intellectualization. We can become enamored with our own efforts and abilities to understand that we fail to rely on the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirit as the true basis for interpretation.
- Professionalism. We may consider the interpretation of scripture a complicated matter that must be handled only by those who are carefully and professionally trained and fail to remember it is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian to interpret scripture for themselves.
- Abstraction. Interpreting scripture and the methods used to do so can become an end in themselves. The purpose of studying scripture is to know God and understand his will for our lives. Studying scripture should shape and mold us into the image of God.
With those things in mind lets look at the historical context of Thessalonians. The city of Thessalonica was located in the Roman Province of Macedonia (modern day Greece and the ancient home country of Alexander the Great). It is and was a port city with a well sheltered bay and harbor in the northeastern corner of the Greek Peninsula well positioned for trade throughout the Aegean Sea. It also lay on the great east-west Roman highway, the Via Ignatia, It was an extremely important and loyal Roman city.
Below are pictures of this major ancient highway and the city of Thessalonica as they exist in modern day Greece.
While the Ignatian Way is a relic and ruin, it is still mostly walkable east to west across the entire Greek Peninsula. Modern Thessalonica (or Thessaloniki or Salonika) is modern Greece’s second city with roaring traffic, a bustling night life and an atmosphere like Boston or Austin
Our study of Thessalonians must properly begin in Acts 16. After the incident with the Philippian Jailer, when Paul and Silvanus (Silas) are discovered to be Roman Citizens, the local authorities are concerned because they jailed them and invite them to leave town. They do so and travel east on the Ignatian Way through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica.
Upon arriving there Paul begins teaching in the local synagogue. Over a period of three Sabbaths he reasoned with the Jews using the Old Testament scriptures, and persuaded a number of them that Jesus was the Messiah along with a substantial number of Greeks and some prominent women of the town. But a number of the non-believing Jews were determined to be rid of Paul and they stirred up the crowd in the Agora (combination marketplace and government center) by accusing Paul of trying to supplant Caesar with Jesus (treason).
The mob went to Jason’s home and, not finding Paul and Silvanus there, dragged Jason and some of the other brother’s back to the Agora and before City Officials where Jason and his friends were made to post bond for their release. The Brothers warned Paul and Silvanus and , presumably hid them from the mob until they could escape to Berea that night.
Later, Paul sent Timothy back to check on the Church that had such a tumultuous start and, based on Timothy’s report, wrote a letter to the Thessalonians. This letter is one of the oldest written before all but Galatians and possibly before any of the Gospels were in writing. It is also one of the most intensely personal of all Paul’s letters.
Paul begins, as he always does, by thanking God for the Church (the people) of Thessalonica. He does this at greater length here than in any of his other letters and he specifically thanks God for them for three reasons, and it is these three reasons we want to focus on today. These reasons are faith, love and hope; three words that we have almost trivialized in the Church. But, as we will see, Paul connects each of the words we tend to trivialize with an outcome that characterizes what these things produce in us.
First up is work produced by faith as the NIV has it. The KJV has it as “your work of faith” and I think this may be more accurate and true to the Greek. This work of faith that Paul is referring to here is not the work that results from our faith, but the work that faith does in us, that is salvation. It is not a work they have done, it is the work done in them as a result of their decision (resulting from faith) to follow Christ.
Beyond their work of faith, they have hope that produces endurance or steadfastness. Think of what the Thessalonians went through. The were drug before the magistrates, accused of treason, had to post bonds, and helped Paul sneak out of town in the middle of the night. How would we react in those circumstances? Would we continue steadfastly in Christ or say,”Whew, we dodged that bullet, we’ll lay low now and hope we go unnoticed”? But the Thessalonians not only did not give up the pressed on to their….
Labor of Love. The work that faith did in them (salvation), produced hope for their future based on what God had promised and resulted in endurance which drove them to a labor of love which was telling others about Christ. Their message “rang out” everywhere. People knew what they had turned from (worshiping idols) and what they had turned to (worship of the living God).
Can those things be said of our Church and ourselves? Has faith done its work in
us? Have we experienced the endurance of the hopeful in Christ? Out of love have do we share our faith with our world?