This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October 22, 2017.
The introduction of the first letter to the Thessalonians has a structure similar to many of Paul’s introductions. It follows the typical Greco-Roman format, which begins with sender and recipient information and moves into a greeting and thanksgiving section. In 1 Thessalonians, though, Paul’s thanksgiving section is superlative in every way. “We always give thanks for all of you constantly,” Paul writes. Then he launches into a glowing recommendation of the believers’ faith, love, and endurance. My family jokingly calls me the queen of superlatives and I defend myself by saying, “Well, I just get so excited about everything that I have to amplify my language to communicate my enthusiasm clearly.” Similarly, Paul is very excited in this passage and expresses his pleasure with intensified language. He has probably just received a report on the fledgling Thessalonian church with the arrival of Timothy and is thrilled to hear that the church has survived through the persecution that plagued its members since the church’s inception.
The story of the founding of the Thessalonian church can be found in Acts 17. After considerable trouble in Philippi, Paul and Silas came to the Macedonian city of Thessalonica. Although Paul’s preaching in the synagogue only yielded some Jewish followers, there were “devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” that were persuaded by Paul’s teaching (Acts 17:4). It is this diverse group that formed the first community of Christ-followers in that city. There was trouble for this church from the beginning. We learn in Acts 17:5-9 that a group of Jews formed a mob against the believers and even dragged one believer, Jason, from his home just for housing Paul and Silas. The believers then sent Paul and Silas away from their city, presumably to keep them safe, but it is likely that the persecution of the Thessalonian Christians continued even after the missionaries moved on.
There must have been a variety of emotions that Paul tries to express as he writes this letter to the believers in Thessalonica. He must feel relief that the church has persevered and not lost faith in the face of opposition. He wants to express gratitude to God for nurturing the seeds of faith in the hearts of these believers and gratitude also to Timothy who, under Paul’s instruction, had returned to the Thessalonica to encourage the church and provide leadership in Paul’s stead. But Paul may also be feeling guilt or at least a desire to explain himself because he had left the city in a rush and had not been able to return to check on them. Although it is true that sending Timothy as a helper was as close to a personal visit as Paul could make, Paul likely felt regret because he could not encourage the Thessalonian believers in person. All of these emotions seem to play out in Paul’s introduction to the letter.
This section of the letter contains effusive praise for the Thessalonian believers. Paul lauds their work, their love, their hope, their joyful reception of the gospel, their exemplary faith, their hospitality, and the strength they showed when they turned from idol worship to the true God. There is a key emphasis in these verses. However, that could be overlooked in the litany of compliments. In 1:5, Paul declares that the message of the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Paul might be giving praise to the Thessalonians for their tenacious faith, but Paul is careful to recognize that the source of their strong faith is the Holy Spirit. Paul’s emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit here is unique for him. In the book of Acts, Luke consistently highlights the Holy Spirit’s role in prompting and sustaining faith but there is little mention of this function of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters. The fact that Paul highlights the importance of the Holy Spirit in the Thessalonian’s faith shows just how precarious the situation was for these Macedonian believers. Paul is acknowledging how unlikely it was for a church to form and thrive under the particular circumstances in Thessalonica. Their perseverance in faith is a witness to the great power of the Holy Spirit.
We often overlook the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches today. If we are to take the witness of Acts seriously, the Holy Spirit is the heartbeat and breath of the Church universal. It is the Holy Spirit that ignited the church on the Day of Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit that initiates belief in converts. It is the Holy Spirit that strengthens Christians through persecution and doubt. It is the Holy Spirit that gives understanding to believers and molds them into the image of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that inspires us to evangelize and serve and plant new churches. And it is the Holy Spirit that sustains the spirit and work of believers across the globe. Paul might have been pleased with and proud of the Thessalonian believers, but he knew that their faith and perseverance would not have been possible without the power of the Holy Spirit among them.
Tags: Holy Spirit, Praise, Paul, Thessalonian Church, Acts 17