Thessalonica was (and still is) an important seaport about 185 miles (300 km) north of Athens. In Paul’s day, the region in which Thessalonica was located was known as Macedonia. Today, it is northern Greece. In return for its support of Augustus, the Romans made Thessalonica a free city in 43 B.C.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy visited Thessalonica on Paul’s Second Missionary Journey. Paul and Silas had been in Philippi, but were imprisoned there on the complaint of the owner of a slave girl from whom Paul had exorcised a demon. An earthquake freed them that night, but they remained in the jail until the following morning. Learning that they were Roman citizens, the magistrates apologized, freed them, and asked them to leave Philippi (Acts 16).
They then went to Thessalonica, where on three successive Sabbaths they attended the synagogue and presented their case for Jesus as the Messiah. They made a number of converts, primarily among devout Greeks (Acts 17:4)—Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism, but who had not yet become full-fledged Jewish proselytes.
Jewish leaders, unhappy about these conversions, complained to the authorities that Paul and Silas were claiming that there was a king named Jesus (Acts 17:7). As a result of the ensuing conflict, Paul and Silas left for Berea (Acts 17:10). Jewish leaders from Thessalonica followed them to Berea, “agitating the multitudes” (Acts 17:13). Silas and Timothy stayed temporarily in Berea, while Paul went to Athens (Acts 17:14). Paul sent word to Silas and Timothy to rejoin him, which they did (Acts 17:15).
Paul then went to Corinth, where he stayed for a considerable time (Acts 18). Silas and Timothy rejoined him there (Acts 18:5). It was there, after opposition by Jewish leaders, that Paul said, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean. From now on, I will go to the Gentiles!” (Acts 18:6).
Paul sent Timothy to assist the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Timothy brought back a good report, but also related issues that Paul addressed in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 3:6ff.). One of those issues was their understanding of the status of “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Paul assured the Thessalonian Christians that “the dead in Christ will rise first” when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
In his first letter, Paul encouraged the Thessalonian Christians to live as if Christ’s Second Coming might take place at any time (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). His second letter acknowledges that Thessalonian Christians have endured persecution (2 Thessalonians 1:4). He tells them of certain events that will precede the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12), and warns against idleness while awaiting it (3:6-15).
2 THESSALONIANS 1:1-2: GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). Today we sign our name at the end of a letter instead of at the beginning, but in Paul’s day writers identified themselves at the beginning, and then listed intended recipients. This verse is similar to Paul’s salutation in 1 Thessalonians 1:1.
“Silvanus” is the Latin form for Silas. Luke consistently uses Silas in the book of Acts (Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 40; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:1, 4-5, 10, 14-15; 18:5). Paul consistently uses Silvanus (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). Silas/Silvanus accompanied Paul on his Second Missionary Journey. See THE CONTEXT above for a thumbnail sketch of his role.
“Timothy” was a believer when Paul first encountered him in Lystra. Paul’s mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, were both believers (2 Timothy 1:5). Paul asked Timothy to accompany him on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 16:1-3). Elsewhere, Paul refers to Timothy as “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17) and “my true child in faith,” (1 Timothy 1:2).
“Grace (charis) to you and peace (eirene) from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 2). Paul continues his greeting with this prayer that they receive the blessing of grace (charis) and peace (eirene) “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Grace” (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Greeks often used the word charis to speak of patronage (the support of a patron, such as someone who provided financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connoted generosity—generosity that demanded loyalty on the part of the recipient.
It is easy, therefore, to understand why Paul would adapt charis to the Gospel. Christian charis is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. Just as we could never fully repay a person who left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth, so also we can never repay God for the gift of salvation. However, if a patron were to grant us unimaginable wealth, we could be faithful to the patron by using the money in a way that would be consistent with the patron’s wishes or values. So also, we can be faithful to the God who gives us salvation by living in accord with God’s will.
“Peace” (eirene) is also a significant word, occurring nearly a hundred times in the New Testament. It has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom, which was used frequently in the Old Testament.
Both eirene (Greek) and shalom (Hebrew) can refer to an inner kind of peace—the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God—the kind of wholeness that comes from having the image of God, once shattered by sin, restored in the believer.
But both eirene and shalom can also refer to an external kind of peace—the absence of rancor or violence among individuals or nations.
“from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These are the sources of the grace and peace for which Paul prays—the fount from which all grace and peace flow.
2 THESSALONIANS 1:3-4. WE GIVE THANKS TO GOD FOR YOU
3 We are bound to always give thanks to God for you, brothers, even as it is appropriate, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of each and every one of you towards one another abounds; 4 so that we ourselves boast about you in the assemblies of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you endure.
“We are bound (opheilo) to always give thanks to God for you, brothers (adelphoi), even as it is appropriate, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love (agape) of each and every one of you towards one another abounds” (v. 3). This is an unusual expression of thanksgiving in that the Greek word opheilo suggests obligation—we ought to give thanks—we are bound to give thanks. Some scholars have suggested that this reflects reluctance on Paul’s part to give thanks for these Thessalonian Christians.
Others believe that this language, being uncharacteristic of Paul, suggests that someone other than Paul wrote this letter. But it seems better to take Paul’s words at face value—that he is truly thankful for their growing faith and their love for one another.
The verbs in this verse are all present tense, which indicates ongoing action. Paul’s thanksgiving, the growth of faith, and the love of the Thessalonian Christians for one another are all a work in progress. The word “always” also emphasizes the ongoing nature of these actions.
The abounding love that the Thessalonian Christians have for one another is agape love. The Greeks have other words for love (philos and eros), but Paul uses the word agape here because it is the kind of love that is concerned for the welfare of the other person.
“so that we ourselves boast about you in the assemblies (ekklesiais—churches) of God” (v. 4a). “So that” links this verse with the preceding verse. It is the faith and love of the Thessalonian Christians (v. 3) that causes Paul and his companions to boast about them.
“We ourselves boast about you” is emphatic. This is high praise. Paul and his companions are boasting about the Thessalonian Christians “in the ekklesiais“—in the churches. Their faithfulness would encourage other Christians—other churches. Paul’s praise also puts the Thessalonians under pressure to live up to their good reputation.
“for your patience (hupomone) and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you endure” (v. 4b). These are the Thessalonian qualities that prompted Paul’s praise—patience (hupomone) and faith in the face of persecution and affliction.
The Greek word hupomone can be translated long-suffering or perseverance or endurance. For these Thessalonian Christians, hupomone is endurance in adversity—the ability to stand one’s ground when challenged—continuing in faith in spite of difficult circumstances.
Paul isn’t specific about the persecutions and afflictions that the Thessalonians are enduring. However, we know that his success in gaining converts, especially among “devout Greeks” (Acts 17:4)—Gentiles attracted to the Jewish faith but not yet proselytes—led to jealousy among the Jewish leaders, who responded with violence and false charges (Acts 17:5-9). Paul had to leave Thessalonica immediately. He went to Berea, where he was well received. However, “when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there likewise, agitating the multitudes,” so that Paul once again had to flee (Acts 17:13-14).
But the Thessalonian Christians couldn’t respond to persecution by packing up and leaving. Thessalonica was their home. They had friends there—and homes—and jobs. They therefore found themselves having to endure a hostile environment because of their newfound faith.
2 THESSALONIANS 1:5-10. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but the preacher should be aware of them. In verse 4, Paul mentioned the “persecutions and…afflictions” which the Thessalonian Christians have endured. That leads to a discussion of “the righteous judgment of God” (1:5). Paul assures the Thessalonians that, in the Second Coming, God will reward their faithfulness and punish their persecutors.
2 THESSALONIANS 1:11-12: MAY THE NAME OF JESUS BE GLORIFIED IN YOU
11 To this end we also pray always for you, that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire of goodness and work of faith, with power; 12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“To this end” (v. 11a). What is “this”? Is Paul referring back to verses 3-4, where he gave thanks for their growing faith and their love for one another? Or is he referring to verses 5-10, where he talked about God setting things straight at the Second Coming? Probably the latter—the glorification of the saints in the last days (v. 10).
“we also pray always for you” (v. 11b). These verses don’t constitute a prayer, but instead describe what Paul and his companions are praying in behalf of the Thessalonica Christians. They are praying for three things:
(1) They are praying that “our God may count you worthy of your calling” (klesis) (v. 11c). The people of Paul’s day would have used the word klesis to speak of an invitation to a dinner or another special occasion. There are higher and lower kinds of such callings. Most people would consider an invitation from the president to a White House dinner to be a higher calling than an invitation from an ordinary friend to share a pot of tea. However, both of these would pale by comparison with a calling issued by God to join God’s kingdom and to serve God’s purposes. Paul and his companions pray that these Thessalonian Christians might, in the last days, be counted worthy of this high calling.
(2) They are praying that God might “fulfill every desire (eudokia) of goodness and work of faith with power” (v. 11d). The Greek word eudokia combines eu (good) and dokeo (which has a variety of meanings, among which are “what seems good” or “what gives pleasure”). We could, therefore, translate eudokia as “good pleasure.”
Is Paul praying that God might fulfill God’s good pleasure or the good pleasure of the Thessalonian Christians? It could be either, but probably the latter. Either way it has to do with seeing these Thessalonian Christians achieve “goodness and work of faith”—moral and ethical behavior—faithfulness to the faith. They are in the trenches—suffering persecution for their faith. Paul and his companions are praying, then, that the Thessalonian Christians not be distracted by their adversities or the temptations that the tempter is throwing in their path. He is praying that they might hold the helm steady through the storm until such time as they break out into the sunlight beyond the storm.
They are praying that “the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him” (v. 12a). In that time and place, people considered a person’s name to be more than a label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person.
The purpose of Paul’s prayer has to do with the witness of these Thessalonian Christians to Christ—that they might, through their faithfulness, glorify (honor) the name of “our Lord Jesus.”
“and you in him” (v. 12b). There is a reciprocal quality to the honor bestowed by faithful discipleship. Not only is Christ honored, but the Christian person will be honored as well. Not everyone will honor the faithful Christian—their persecutors certainly have no intention of honoring them. However, Christ will honor them—of that they can be certain.
“according to the grace (charis) of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12c). See the comments above on verse 2 concerning the meaning of grace (charis). It is only by God’s grace that any of this is possible. Christians cannot achieve these high standards on their own.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1992)
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Copyright 2013, Richard Niell Donovan