Lecture 16: Acts 15:36-18:22; 1 and 2 Thessalonians
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In Paul's Second Missionary Journey he travels through Asia Minor to Corinth. We will look at his two letters to the Thessalonian church with an emphasis on his basic teaching to new converts and Jesus' return.
A. Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:36-18:22)
B. 1 Thessalonians
1. Greeting and Thanksgiving (1 Thess. 1)
2. Paul Reviews his Time with Them (1 Thess. 2)
3. Paul Sent Timothy (1 Thess. 3)
4. Responding to Timothy’s Report (1 Thess. 4-5)
C. 2 Thessalonians
1. Persevere in the Face of Persecution (2 Thess. 1:5-12)
2. Jesus’s Return is Future (2 Thess. 2)
3. Idleness (2 Thess. 3)
Where we last left off in Acts 15 was at the end of the Jerusalem Council when Paul and Barnabas met with the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. They wrote the letter that said you don’t have to be Jewish in order to be a Christian; you don’t have to follow the kosher laws; you don’t have to be circumcised. As I said, the Jerusalem Council really finished that debate. It does not show itself again as we go into the New Testament. When you start reading about Jewish opposition now, it’s non-Christian Jewish opposition. The Judaizers, the Jewish Christians, were taken care of in Acts 15.
Disagreement over Mark
What happens is that Paul gets to Barnabas and he says, let’s go back and see how the churches we’ve planted are doing. They take off from Antioch. You have this interesting story of this disagreement with Mark, that because he had left in the first missionary journey at the very beginning, Paul didn’t want to take him. Paul and Barnabas got into a sharp disagreement over it, and Barnabas who was related to Mark took him to Cyprus for a missionary journey, and Paul picked up Silas and took off on the second. It’s one of those seemingly unresolved major conflicts in the Bible, but we learn later on that Paul and Mark did get back together and got things patched up, but here’s a good example of good people having sharp disagreements. We don’t know if there was anything else, but the one reason that is given is, that Mark quit on us we can’t trust him.
Asia Minor and Timothy (Acts 16:1-10)
Paul and Silas head off to Asia Minor. They get to the area of Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe, and they meet Timothy. He was a well-known young Christian in that area, who had probably become a Christian through Paul’s first missionary journey, although he is not introduced as Acts. We know from the pastorals that Paul treats Timothy as a spiritual child, so the suggestion is that Paul was the preacher when Timothy became a Christian. They get to that area and they pick up Timothy. There is an interesting comment that they circumcise Timothy because of the Jews. The Jews knew that Timothy’s mom was Jewish and that his father was Greek and therefore socially it would have been hard for Timothy to minister to Jews. Timothy voluntarily was circumcised. Now we know that there were other co-workers of Paul’s who did not get circumcised, Titus being the main example. In Timothy’s case, they thought it best to circumcise him. It’s a marvelous example of a Christian limiting the freedom he has in Christ, because he didn’t have to be circumcised, but he voluntarily limited his freedom and liberty in Christ for the sake of the mission of the Gospel among the Jews. It’s a pretty powerful statement of voluntary submission for that reason.
They pick up Timothy and they head out through different cities. They are encouraging them and are delivering the letter that was written in Acts 15. They head west through Asia Minor; I have a map. Here’s down in Jerusalem and Israel, and Antioch is right up here, and so they take off and they go through the area of Lystra, Iconium and Derbe which is right here. They wanted to go west, but the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let them, so they headed north. They wanted to go to Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let them, and they end up here in Troas. This is the place where they have this vision of the man from Macedonia. I’m assuming at night when Paul was sleeping, God sent a vision of a man from Macedonia saying come over and preach here. So at that point, they head off and then they head up, this is the Macedonia area up here. This is Philippi which is the first place they end up.
One comment I wanted to make is that in Acts 16:10 all of a sudden the pronouns go plural, “When Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia.” This is called one of the “we” sections (clever name huh) in Acts, and evidently it was that Luke joined up with Paul at this point and he’s going to leave Paul and come back, it’s going to go back and forth. When all of a sudden you start seeing pronouns going from Paul or he to we, this is probably when Luke was actually with him and recording.
Philippi (Acts 15:11-40)
They get to Philippi and one of the important things about Philippi is that it was a leading city and a Roman colony. There were certain privileges if you lived in Rome that nobody else had. It was one way that Rome kept control of all the provincial areas that they had certain kinds of voting rights that no one else did. But if Rome ever wanted to settle an area what they could do was declare it a colony of Rome and living in that colony was just like you were living in Rome itself with all the rights and privileges of it. Philippi was one of those places. It was a high privileged place to live. It’s one of the reasons you get some interesting imagery during the Book of Philippi that we’ll look at later on where it talks about our citizenship in Heaven. There’s a little extra twist to that statement when it’s being addressed to people who are citizens of Rome, living in Philippi. Anyway it was an important city in the area.
The Conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)
We have the story of the conversion of Lydia. Paul goes outside to a place where there is prayer, verse 14, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” It’s a great example of God drawing people to himself. He opened up her heart so she could understand, and she was baptized in the river. Now if you go there today, they will show you the spot where Lydia was baptized. We were there when I was in seminary, all the professors went over and went on a tour of Turkey and Greece, somebody got a grant—it was really nice. We were sitting in this Greek Orthodox Church where the priest was trying to convince us all that we should baptize babies. It was fascinating. The sun was going down and finally the Baptist of the group, said that we were quite aware of what baptism was, and could we please go see the ruins of the city. For the next 6 days our lives were miserable. The Greek government requires certain things that if you go to Greece you have to see. You have to have the indoctrination of the Greek Orthodox Church, you have to go Mycenae, they control where you go. It was interesting, but we were shown where Lydia was baptized. Philippi is all flat; they have not done hardly anything; there are a couple of columns standing, but that’s it. There wasn’t a lot to see.
Next there’s the story of the prison. What happens is there is a slave girl who is demon possessed and is fortune telling and making her masters lots of money. After some period of time, Paul gets really sick and tired of the demon following and crying out “these are the servants of the Most High God,” and he turns around and casts the demon out of her, which means that her owners lost a lot of money and they got really mad and they threw them in prison. What’s interesting is that in this story the accusation is made that Paul is the Jew, but is advocating customs that are contrary to Roman law. In other words, even by this time Christianity was not seen as a separate religion, for lack of a better word, from Judaism, it was seen as a Jewish sect. The Gospel is starting to spread, but we’re getting near the outskirts of it. They still think it’s a Jewish sect.
The Conversion of the Philippian Jailer
The magistrates beat Paul and they put him in the prison. One of the privileges of being a Roman citizen is that you cannot be beaten without a trial. The magistrates did something that could have cost them their lives—you just don’t beat a Roman citizen. But they didn’t know he was a Roman citizen and interestingly, Paul evidently did not tell them he was while they were beating him. He gets thrown in jail, the earthquake comes, God opens the doors, the Philippian jailer sees that doors are open and assumes they have escaped. It’s a capital offense to allow prisoners to escape, so he starts to kill himself and they stop him from doing so.
You get some really neat verses in Acts 16 starting at verse 30, “Then he” (meaning the jailer) “brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved (30)?’” In other words, he recognized there was something different in them because of their behavior and my assumption is that he also had heard something about their preaching. Knowing Paul, he was probably preaching from prison. “They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (31).’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house (32).” That’s a very important clause. He took them to his house, he cleaned them up and then it says, “and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” Then at the end of verse 34, “He rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” This is one of the very few passages that you can, and you have to twist it I think to do it, come up with some family plan to salvation. I’ve seen this in some of the books where if the claim being made that if a dad becomes a Christian, everyone’s a Christian—salvation by the family plan. Luke isn’t being really careful probably because he thinks it’s obvious. The point is that Paul preached to everyone who was in the house and everyone must have received the message and became Christians. Of course dads do exert a phenomenal influence on their children. They tend to follow us for good and for evil. There probably was some of that family dynamic, but he preached to the whole family and the whole family believed.
Then you get into one of the more interesting sections in Acts because it has to do with the whole issue of civil disobedience. Let’s look at a couple of the verses starting with verse 37, the magistrates called the jailer the next morning and said, you can let them go now we’re not going to press any more charges. Paul who was not going to be a a meek and mild doormat said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out (37).” Now this is interesting isn’t it, this is part of the whole civil disobedience theology and we’re going to look at this when we’re in Romans 13, but this is one of the important passages because Paul’s not a doormat and he doesn’t go away quietly. He doesn’t say, “That’s okay, I forgive you—I’m a Christian.” For some reason that Paul felt was right, he wants to make a statement. Even to the point he says they better come here and they better take us out. “The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens (38). They came and apologized to them. They took them out and asked them to leave the city (39).” The verbs here are all important. Paul and his buddies “went out of the prison,” what did they do, did they leave town? No, they “visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.” He gets in essence a parade out of the city and he turns right around and he goes back in to make one last visit with the Christians.
Now Romans 13 does require civil obedience, but this isn’t Romans 13: “Render unto Caesar things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Romans 13 is pretty strong, authority is from God, these rulers have power to reward the good and punish the bad. Romans 13 is a pretty strong passage that if you look at it all by itself, you think I can never disagree with the government because it is God ordained. But what you have in Scripture are examples of people, and they are right for doing so, not obeying the civil authorities. This is the strongest of the passages, but you also have it for example in Acts 23 where Paul verbally attacks the high priest. He’s disagreeing, he’s arguing with him. Jesus cleansing in the Temple is often used as an example of civil disobedience. What he did was illegal, but it was right. I just want to mention this here and we’ll talk about it in more detail when we get to Romans 13, but you have to keep Romans 13 balanced by these kinds of events, which we assume because it’s Paul, because it’s Jesus in the Temple that they were right in doing so. When to disagree with the civil authorities is the question.
Student: Wasn’t this somewhat using the law for their advantage against the fellow? I don’t even see civil disobedience here. Response: Yes, in one sense they are not being disobedient; they are using law to enforce their rights, but I know there are people who would look at a passage like Romans 13 and say, “You just shut your mouth up and do whatever they say.” So that’s why I bring it up here. They hadn’t done anything wrong; the magistrates were the ones who broke the law.
Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9)
They leave this area in Philippi and they head down here to Thessalonica. He’s on his way down to Athens and to Corinth. Thessaloniki, the modern pronunciation of Thessalonica, is the capital of the Macedonian providence; it’s a major city and there are a lot of trade routes that are running through it. Again it’s like Philippi; it’s an important city. They get to Thessalonica and I’m going to pick up the story in Acts 17:2, “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (2),” (again he goes to the Jews first and then the Gentiles), “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ (3).’” You have a little snippet of the kerygma there don’t you. You can see the essence of Paul’s preaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies, that he is the Messiah, that we misunderstood it the Messiah had to suffer, but that there’s victory through the death on the cross, and there was the rising from the dead that validated his message and his person. You can see that Paul is still preaching the same basic thing.
He goes along and he persuaded some people and was getting some success, and then the Jews get jealous. The Jews get jealous, they start a riot, and they bring everyone into the market place where all the city government was handled and again, in verse 6, “These men who have turned the world upside down.” I don’t know if there had been more information being passed to Thessalonica than to Philippi, but you’re starting to see that the church is starting to spread, turning the world upside down. Look at 7, “And Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” They are using politics against the Christians. Paul just used his legal power against the Magistrates at Philippi, so you get both sides of it.
Berea (Acts 17:10-15)
They get chased out of Thessalonica and they head down south the Berea, just a little further down the coast and you get a great verse in 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” The Bereans are people who are examining the Scriptures to see if they were true. Then some Jews from Thessalonica came down and created some problems, and Paul took off for Athens.
I want to point out verse 14 because it’s a pretty important one, “Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there.” We are in the area that is generally called Christian education or Catechism because what we believe is going on is that Timothy and Silas were left, it’s a brand new church, and they’ve heard Paul’s preaching, but these two people stayed in a very hostile environment because the people had not learned enough of the basics of Christianity yet. The idea is that Timothy and Silas stay in Berea to continue to teach in a little more detail about the Christian faith. It’s important because that’s a pattern you see elsewhere. When Paul gets down into Corinth he’s going to send Timothy back up to Thessalonica because they had not yet learned enough, they were a brand new church. What you can see is Paul coming into a city, having an evangelistic crusade, but that’s not enough for him, and that’s the point that I want to make and I think the text is reflecting that. It’s not enough just to come in and to preach and to leave, but he knows there’s more teaching that has to happen, more strengthening that has to happen and so he leaves two of his best friends there to do that. That’s for example why when Franklin Graham was here several years ago they worked hard to work with the churches so that anyone who became a Christian at the Festival was assigned to churches where this ongoing teaching could happen. You have a biblical pattern, it’s just reflected here of conversion and then additional teaching to help them understand what they are now believing.
Athens (Acts 17:16-34)
Silas and Timothy stay up in Berea and Paul takes off to Athens. Now Athens is the cultural center of the world; it’s the intellectual center of the world. Rome may have been the legal center of the world, but Athens was the center of philosophical thought. It’s often said that the genius of the Roman Empire was the ability to assimilate peoples that were better than they were in certain areas. When the Romans took over Greece, they kept the Greek culture and Greek thought alive because they understood its superiority, so they assimilated it into their system.
This is Athens, it’s the center of the intellectual world of that time and Paul’s wandering around and he’s seeing idols all over the place. If you go to the Acropolis, the top of the hill where the Parthenon is now you can see what was there. There were idols everywhere and places to put them. Paul went around Athens and was just distraught that in the intellectual and philosophical capital of the world there was all this idolatry going on. He’s invited to come and to speak to them. Verse 18, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’” I don’t know if that’s a reflection of his accent or if it’s because he was teaching such strange things, but it’s not a kind comment. “Others said, ‘he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” Now that’s the important part. It almost didn’t matter which Greek philosophy you followed, they all shared one thing in common, and that was a dualistic view of reality. The idea in Plato is that the world that we see isn’t the real world. The real world is the invisible world; they call if the world of forms. What happened to Plato’s thought was that the visible material world came to be viewed as evil. The spiritual world, the invisible world, was good. The idea is that the real you is incased in this prison house of a body and so salvation, whether it was philosophical salvation or religious salvation, was to release the spirit that is within you to get it outside of the bondage of the physical body. That’s something that almost all Greek philosophy shares in one form or another. To preach the resurrection of the body is antithetical to everything the Greek philosophy believed because it is the exact opposite. Why would you want your physical body raised? This was bad, this was evil, this was what was keeping you pinned down here on earth. Luke gives us a little heads-up as to what the problem is going to be that there is something about the resurrection coming up.
Verse 21, and if you don’t believe sarcasm is Godly you need to read some Scripture: "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new." I know of quite a few schools that fit in that category too. He comes to the area of Areopagus, so he’s in the heart of everything. This is the Harvard of the ancient world. Look how he starts in 22, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god (23).’” Even with all their gods they were scared they had missed one so they had an altar to whatever we missed. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Now what’s going on? This is Paul meeting them where they are. This is Paul trying to establish a beachhead, some common ground so he’s not just talking out of the air. It’s a very good thing to learn to do. You’re sharing the Gospel with someone and you’re talking about Jesus, it’s often good to find out what you have in common, what you share, what’s the starting point. Now, in one sense, an altar to an unknown god means nothing to Paul, but he’s trying to find some way to connect with the Athenians and there’s an important lesson there as we learn to share the Gospel. I don’t preach to felt needs because our real needs are never felt. People generally don’t feel their sin, but there’s something to be said about finding people where they are and starting at that point and then going to where they need to go and here’s your biblical precedent for it.
He sets the stage, he says, okay let me tell you about this unknown God, “24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of Heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,” so God is not a human creation, he’s not physical, he doesn’t exist in a temple or anything like that and he goes on with this discussion. We get to verse 31, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” Paul’s preaching is beautifully Christ-centric it’s always focusing on Christ, “and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (31).” Now at that point he’s lost the crowd, right? “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked (32).” Because he just went counter to what almost all of them believed. Yet, even in all of that, some people did believe Paul. You have a very interesting sermon, it’s a pretty unusual sermon; there’s nothing else in Acts quite like this, but it’s an example of Paul wanting to preach, wanting to establish common ground working from where his audience was, but then with absolute boldness and with no fear, he didn’t care if they liked him or not, he didn’t care if got booed out of Harvard or not, he went right to the source of the issue, Jesus Christ, who he is and the resurrection from the dead. Paul was no idiot. He knew exactly what was going to happen when he said that and yet, nonetheless, he went right to the point. You have this neat balance of meeting people where they are, but not avoiding the main point and getting right to the issue. These are great stories.
Corinth (Acts 18:1-17)
Paul leaves Athens and heads down south to Corinth, just a little further down. In Greece, the southern part is called the Peloponnese, and there’s an isthmus that separates it from the main part of Greece. It was about 2 miles wide and they used to portage boats over it. Now they’ve cut a canal through it so you can just go straight through.
Corinth was a very important city, a big city of commerce, with a lot of money and a lot of influence. He gets to Corinth and he decides to stay there for awhile. He meets Aquila and Priscilla (Priscilla and Prisca are the same person, just different spelling for the name). These were Jews that had been kicked out of Rome. Claudius commanded the Jews to leave Rome in AD 49-50. This is one of the really important things that we use to date the New Testament with. Presumably Aquila and Priscilla at that point were Christians. They met up with Paul; they were tentmakers so Paul lived with them and worked with them. Somewhere along this time when they were in Corinth, Silas and Timothy get back down from Berea in that area.
Again you have Paul in Corinth doing the same thing he’s always done, he goes to the Jews first, he makes a serious appeal to them, and when he’s rejected by the majority of them he rejects them. This is a particularly interesting account—look at verse 6, “when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments,” an ancient prophetic gesture of judgment, like knocking the dust off your feet or washing your hands, “and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” Then what does he do? He goes right next door to the synagogue and there’s a guy there who is a Christian and he starts preaching there. What if a Buddhist group bought the Rusty Bucket building across the street and opened up a temple? That’s what Paul did. He went right next door. Paul likes a good fight and he is not scared of anything. He camps out next to the synagogue in order to preach, and then he stays there for about a year and a half.
I just want to mention in passing here that it was during this time that Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians while he was in Corinth during this year and half period. He left Berea rather quickly like he left Thessalonica and Timothy and Silas had been up there, but they eventually came to Corinth. What happens and we know this from what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians is that he sent Timothy back up to Thessalonica because he was really concerned. It was such a young church, the opposition was so strong and he had to leave so quickly that he was concerned that the Thessalonian Christians were doing okay. He sends Timothy up there; he comes back with a good report, but a bunch of questions. He writes the book that we call 1 Thessalonians and goes back up. Then apparently just three or four months later, the Thessalonian Christians had more questions, and so in response to that he wrote what we call 2 Thessalonians. This letter writing and visit of Timothy was all happening while Paul was staying in Corinth, but we’re going to look at Thessalonica and the two letters later on.
In Acts 18:12, the Jews brought charges against Paul. You get this really interesting dialogue where the Roman judge won’t even listen to the court case, and Luke goes on and on. If this were a term paper you would have marked him off saying “get to the point,” but you have to remember where Paul was at the end of Acts 28. He’s in jail in Rome and the trial has already started. One of the reasons we think Luke wrote the Book of Acts was as a legal defense for Paul. He wanted to give all kinds of evidence that Paul wasn’t a trouble maker and that he had complied with Roman law. Especially when you get to the end of the Book of Acts, the trials get longer and longer as Luke tells them. That’s because it’s written in defense of Paul. Even here you get these little snippets that are going to be evidence to the Roman judge after Acts 28 that Paul’s not a rabble rouser. That’s what is going on there.
Return to Antioch (Acts 18:18-22)
After his time period in Corinth, he heads back to Antioch. He takes off on the way home and he sails to Ephesus. He doesn’t spend time there, but the third missionary journey is based around Ephesus. Here he just makes contact with them. Then he sails back and goes down and meets the church in Jerusalem and then he goes back home to Antioch. That’s the end of the second missionary journey; it’s a lot of history, but good stuff.
I want to look at 1 and 2 Thessalonians. I think one of the really neat things about these two letters is that the church is so young, and I find it really helpful to see what Paul says to really young churches. In other words, it shows us what he taught, and what was in that catechesis that Silas and Timothy taught, what the points that they considered basic and not secondary were. A lot of that information is in these two letters.
For 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s in Corinth and he sends Timothy back up. Timothy comes back with a report of how they are doing and questions and so the letter was written in response to those questions. There are two purposes in this letter. The first is to encourage the Thessalonians. There was a lot of persecution; the church was really paying their price. It’s interesting that this persecution started right away. This is not the persecution of people who have been around for a long time; these people became Christians, and their lives showed that they had changed right away and that’s why there was so much persecution. He wants to encourage them to persevere and to hang in there. Then there’s also the second thing, there’s this basic theology, especially Eschatology. They have a lot of questions about what happens now when you die, whether you get to go to Heaven, and what happens when Jesus comes back. Evidently, Paul taught on Eschatology to these young Christians. There was a follow-up on that, encouragement, and some basic theology.
Greeting and Thanksgiving (1 Thess. 1)
Paul starts off as he normally does by saying, I thank God for you, and he gives his thanksgiving and explains why he’s proud of them and why he’s happy for what’s going on. Down in verse 9, he’s talking about the people in Macedonia and Achaia and he says, "For they themselves report concerning us," in other words, Paul’s been hearing what’s been going on, "the reception we had among you, and" (then here’s the important one) "how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (9), and to wait for his Son from Heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (10)." That’s a very powerful couple of verses. Again, he’s saying this is what a young Christian looks like. It’s someone who was serving idols and they’ve changed—they’ve turned and they are now serving the living and true God and the context is that’s why you’re being persecuted. What if when we became Christians, all of our lives were so dramatically changed that we started being persecuted within the first month? That’s what is going on here. That’s how much their lives evidently changed.
Look at verse 10, he tells the Thessalonians they are waiting “for his Son from Heaven.” I like to think of this as a heads up. I think we tend to live our lives often with our heads down, contemplating how we’re doing. It easy to fall into that sort of thinking tat the church is about us, the Gospel is about us, what do we get out of. It’s natural—we all do it. Sometimes what I’ll admonish us to do in the sermon is to live with your head up, to stop looking at yourself because the entire orientation of the New Testament is towards the future. We are to live out our lives here on earth looking forward to Christ’s return, looking forward to going to Heaven. It’s a totally different posture, a different way of looking at life. Every once in awhile you get verses like that that make it very clear. We are to live our lives looking forward to seeing his Son return from Heaven.
The number one problem in the American church is that there is no persecution. It is so good, it is so easy, and we see verses like 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” or the verse in Romans that says that the result of growth and sanctification is glorification, that you have to grow through tribulation. It’s hard to know that in the American church. You get a few churches, because of their situation, that understand it better. We talk among our self in staff about Brooklyn Tabernacle where there is always a large group praying in that church, always. It’s always open and there are hundreds of people constantly praying in Brooklyn Tabernacle. Why? The answer is they have to, look where they live, look at the lives they have to deal with, the conflict there is if they are going to live out their lives as Christians. They have to live in prayer. That’s hard isn’t it because it’s so easy for us. I’m not a glutton for persecution, but it would cause the American church to really start living our faith out. Again my friend that just came back from India he said, "You know it’s so radically different. These Christians are intensely persecuted by the Hindus, and now they are spending their money and their time helping them, caring for the Hindu kids who parents were killed by the tsunamis.” That’s amazing. I’ll tell you what Steve has prayed for sometimes. He said he wishes that the non-profit status of churches would be removed. I wonder what would happen to our giving, just a thought. These Thessalonians had really responded, and they had turned from idols, they had turned to the true God. The change was so dramatic that they were being persecuted for it. They were living their lives with their heads up not being able to wait to get home to Heaven. Powerful, I think powerful situation.
Paul Reviews his Time with Them (1 Thess. 2)
Paul goes into 1 Thessalonians 2 and he reviews his time with them. It’s very clear that whoever is causing the problems in Thessalonica were assassinating Paul’s character. There is some defense of who he is and that he loved them and he worked for money and he wasn’t sponging off of them. Look at verse 12, where he’s talking about what he said when he was with them, “We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” There’s a lot of motivation that Scripture gives for how we should behave. 1 Peter says do it out of fear if nothing else—be scared of the God who is going to judge you. 1 Peter 1:17: “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” Other verses like Romans 12 say, you’ve been changed so you should live a changed life. This verse 12 is another one of those major motivations for all Christians to live Godly lives, walk in manner worthy of God, and be worthy of God. Walk in a way that he would be proud, that would bring honor and respect to him. Again, Paul rarely sits there and shakes his fingers and say, “Now you can’t do that and here are the 27 rules why.” Sometimes he does, but that rarely is his motivation for Godly living. This is one of the big motivations, that you would be worthy of God, live in a way that will bring him praise and honor. This is a powerful motivation I think.
Paul Sent Timothy (1 Thess. 3)
He continues in his letter to the Thessalonians how he wanted to see them, but he had to send Timothy, but Timothy has now come back and he has information about the Thessalonian church. Let me start reading at 3:1, “Therefore when we could bear it no longer,” when they had not yet heard how the church was going, “we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone,” so evidently they were still in Athens when he sent Timothy back up to Thessalonica. After Timothy had left, Paul took off down to Corinth and then Timothy returned to Corinth. “And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith (2),” there is Christian education, there’s catechesis, there’s the encouragement that has to happen for young Christians. Here’s the purpose, “that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this (3).” Christians are destined for persecution. Remember Jesus said, “if they hated me they are going to hate you.” This is just a continuation of that. “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know (4). For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain (5),” in other words, as a result of being persecuted they had withdrawn from the Christian faith, “But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you (6).” and he goes on.
The Necessity of Christian Education
There are a couple of very interesting principles that I think come out of this paragraph that I want to emphasize. First of all, notice the necessity of Christian education. Paul sent him back up, they needed to be encouraged, and they needed to be taught. They needed to be taught that you needed to hang in there and they needed to be taught that persecution was going to come.
When I was laying out that twelve-part sermon series on New Believers it was fascinating. I sat down with a group of people and said, “Okay, what twelve things does a new Christian need to know.” We laid it all out and tried to get it in the right order. The one that was the hardest was, when do you tell a new Christian he is going to be persecuted? Day 1? No. Day 2? No. When I read through other new believers’ curriculum, most didn’t even talk about it. I kept reading passages like this and it said they have to know that their lives are going to change and it’s going to cause conflict. I called my sister who has been involved with new believers and catechetical instruction for forty years. We were talking about whether you put it near the beginning or near the end. We didn’t want to put it at the end because we didn’t want to end on a down note. Terry made an interesting comment, she said, “You know if we were in China we would have to put this talk much earlier, because Christianity will come in conflict with culture so quickly.” That hit me really hard. I asked, “Why don’t we in America?” Because we generally don’t tell new Christians that their lives are going to change and that it’s going to produce conflict. What we did in this series is put that pretty early and we talked about the joy of the Christian walk and the help of the Christian walk and the fact that you’re going to want to change, but you’re going to fail and there’s going to be conflict, and there’s going to be persecution. Just a couple of weeks ago a lady who is working through the curriculum contacted me and said, “Thank you for telling me up front that there’s going to be conflict because I’m in the middle of it right now and it’s really hard.” I thought, good, I did it right. It was the thing where if we teach conversion, that it is true repentance and it is change and that God is going to change you from the inside out and it will start affecting especially these different areas of your life. Remember Jesus said, “Count the cost.” You don’t go to war until you’ve made sure you can beat the enemy. I think we should be having new Christians or even people in the process of conversion counting the cost because their life is going to change. They don’t have to change it, but God is going to change it from the inside out. That involves conflict. I just share that as an antidote because that’s one reason I like 1 Thessalonians so much because it reflects the pattern of persecution. They become a Christian, God changes them, they are in conflict right away. They need to be warned about it right away. You can imagine becoming a Christian and the conflict starts and you think, “Wait a minute, I thought Christianity meant that God met all my needs, right?” No, well, that’s not what it’s primarily about. We need Christian education we really do. New believers must be trained so they can know what is coming around the corner. That’s one reason why the bulk of this new building was given to Sunday School classes so that we could do Christian education, especially for young believers.
The Necessity of Persecution
Number two I’ve already touched on, the necessity of persecution in the life of a Christian. Paul says it pretty strongly here at the end of verse 3, “For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.” You’re going to get persecuted, that’s just the way it is. If you are living the life of Jesus, you are going to be in conflict with the world. Again in American that’s pretty hard to understand, isn’t it? You have to be pretty strongly committed to your Christian witness to come into too much conflict, but I suspect that if you work downtown, you work at an office building, like a friend of mine who nearly got fired because he put a little cross on his name sticker on his cubicle. I imagine if you have a normal job out in the real world and you start living your life as a Christian, there is going to be persecution. The verse I referred to earlier, 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The Thessalonians know that. Romans 8:17 is a scary verse where Paul’s talking about the fact that we are children, “And if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” There are other verses that talk about this that there is just something about the fact that Jesus is not of this world and you and I in Jesus’s language in John 17 are in the world, but not of the world. That’s going to bring us into conflict with the world. It necessarily happens. The Thessalonians knew that.
The Necessity of Perseverance
The third thing is just the necessity of perseverance, that he wants them to hang in there. I know this is a controversial topic, but I just want to mention a couple of things here, and we’ll talk about it in more detail later. Look at Paul’s comment at verse 5, “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter” (Satan) “had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” Now what does that mean? Doesn’t it mean that Paul is concerned that if in the course of the temptation, in the course of the persecution, people fall away from the faith, that his work would be in vain? I think that’s a pretty strong statement that Paul understands that we become disciples and we are to live as disciples and we are to die as disciples. You all know I refer to my theology, but Paul says if you don’t hang in there, if you don’t persevere, then my works all in vain. I don’t think that means that you get to go to Heaven and live in a smaller house. I think if Paul said my preaching was in vain I think it has to mean that you end up in Hell. You can see a real concern that it’s not just this single event Christianity where I raised my hand and I said the magic prayer and now I have my get out of Hell free card which unfortunately is how the Gospel is often shared with people, but there evidently is a necessity of persevering, like Jesus said, “He who perseveres to the end will be saved.” Otherwise Paul says it’s all in vain if you don’t hang in there.
Acts 3:8, "For now we live," the NLT says, "It gives us new life," some of the other translations say, "for now we really live, if you are standing fast in the Lord." See Paul’s goal was not to have a lot of people come forward at an evangelistic rally; Paul’s goal was that they stand fast in the Lord. That’s the only way Paul looks at Christians. I will put it in context of eternal security when we get to a passage that gives me enough data to talk about it, but I just wanted to introduce it here. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a four point Calvinist; I don’t believe in limited atonement and I think that Jesus died for the whole world, but I believe that God perseveres in the life of his children by continuing to enable them to have faith, and so a true child of God continues to respond in faith and perseveres to the end of his life and goes to Heaven. If he doesn’t then the guaranteeing work of the Holy Spirit is worthless. That’s not much of a guarantee if we don’t get it, but I’m just as equally as strong as Scripture is, that you have to persevere.
Christianity is not a single event, we talked about this in Mark 8 a lot, that Christianity is not this single event where a switch is thrown and somehow no matter how I live the rest of my life I go to Heaven. I just don’t think that’s anywhere in the Bible. I think the model is we become Christians and we live as Christians and we die as Christians. We have to take the security passages seriously like in Ephesians that says the Holy Spirit is our guarantee, and we also have to take the warning passages seriously that we are going to get glorified if we suffer for it—not if we raise our hand at camp when we’re 12, but if we suffer for it. This is not Paul’s salvation, it’s the Thessalonians. If’s Paul’s work would have been in vain, his work in Thessalonica would have been in vain if the Thessalonians didn’t persevere in their faith. I believe in perseverance for the saints, I don’t believe you can lose your salvation. I think that nobody can snatch you out of the Father’s hand, but what I have to do is reconcile those verses with the equally strong verses that it is only those who persevere to the end will be saved.
It’s an American phenomenon, this idea that if I raise my hand at camp nothing else matters. There are so many verses in Scripture that make it impossible for me to believe that’s what Paul thinks a Christian is. A Christian is someone who is changed by the power of God, by his grace and mercy through no works of my own, but a changed person by the power of God lives a changed life and he lives it to the end of his life. This is the word that Paul uses and it’s his word to say that if you don’t persevere it’s in vain. By saying that I don’t think he’s saying I never should have gone there or I made a mistake or I messed up. I think it’s a very strong statement that Paul’s conception of a Christian is someone who lives out his Christian commitment. For Paul, if a person doesn’t live it out, his work is in vain. I don’t want to attach too much theology or detail significance to it, but I just wanted to share that this is how Paul thinks. When we looked at the Gospels, how does Jesus look at us? He looks at us as disciples. That’s the word that he used, that’s the concept he discusses. He doesn’t talk about conversion experience; he talks about being a disciple: here’s what it takes to be my disciple; here’s what a disciple looks like. Paul does the same thing, but he uses different words. I just wanted to emphasize that. I don’t think Paul would think he had done anything wrong, but he’s letting them know. Student: It would be like you putting your life in front of a congregation and find that they had gone another way, you would say all the effort I put in was a wasted effort. Response: These are pretty strong words, I think.
Look also at verses 11-13, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you (11), and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you (12), so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (13).” Paul wants the church to love each other and too, he wants the church to pursue holiness so that as we are presented before God, when Jesus returns, we will be blameless in our holiness. Now in one sense we are saints when we become Christians, but there’s also the growth in sanctification, movement toward holiness and Paul says that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys love one another and move toward holiness. That’s a pretty good essence statement for a church, isn’t it? Love one another, move toward holiness. That’s what he prayed for. He didn’t pray for an effective children’s program (though I believe in effective children’s programs). I love these statements that consolidate ideas and get to the essence of things. If nothing else, they help me know how to preach and they help me know how to help lead the church. What is this church about? It’s about loving one another, it’s about moving toward holiness.
Responding to Timothy’s Report (1 Thess. 4-5)
Core Topics for a Young Church (1 Thess. 4:1-12)
In chapter 4, Paul starts responding to Timothy’s report about what specific things are going on in Thessalonica, and it makes it very clear that one of those core things that Paul and Timothy and Silas taught in their catechism was sexual purity. It’s here as clear as it could be. Verse 3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” College people have about five questions and that’s it. The second or third is always sovereignty, the will of God for my life, and I love to quote verse 3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” What God wants for you, if you ever wondered what God’s will for your life is, there it is—it’s sanctification—it’s growth toward holiness. There needs to be a colon there because what follows is part of what growth in holiness looks like. It looks like “that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor (4), not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (5); that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you (6). For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness (7). Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (8).” Actually I taught college for ten years, and the number one question I got was, can I marry a non-Christian and can I sleep with my girlfriend (this is a Christian college) and then will of God and Sovereignty was about number five at this particular institution. That’s what they wanted to know. It’s very clear what Paul’s answers are when it comes to the issues of sexual purity. This is an issue for all generations, right?
He also talks about the need to continue in your brotherly love and to work hard. It interesting, look at verse 11, "And to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you." This was evidently a problem in Thessalonica that there were a bunch of lazy Christians. It comes up in Thess. 5:4 when he talks about admonishing the idle, and it becomes a real issue and even an issue of church discipline in 2 Thessalonians. Now it’s possible that their idleness was caused by a belief that Jesus was going to return any minute now and so why work. It’s also possible and I think more likely that they were just lazy and sponging off the church. It’s mentioned just quickly here, but it’s going to come back up.
Eschatology (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11)
Probably the single most significant theological offering of 1 Thessalonians is the passage from 4:13-5:11, which has to do with Eschatology, the discussion of what’s going to happen at the end times. Starting at verse 16, you can see the situation. This is what’s going to happen at the end of time. The question is, what happened to those who have fallen asleep? What happened to those who have died before Jesus comes back again? They evidently weren’t sure that there was a resurrection of the dead. Paul’s answer starting at verse 16, “For the Lord himself will descend from Heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” So evidently, when Christ comes back again at the end of time, he will be up there, you’ll see it East to the West, you’ll hear a trumpet blast, all those things from Mark 13, and evidently the Christians who have died are going to be bodily raised. “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (17).”
Now we believe that when you die you go to Heaven; your spirit goes to Heaven. The Bible talks about us coming with God at the end of time, so it appears what’s going to happen, if we die before the Lord returns, then we get to come with him and all the angels that everybody can see, and then evidently we are reunited with our bodies, which are then glorified and they are raised because we both come with him and we are raised to him. Then as we who have died are given our glorified bodies and raised, then so also those who are still alive get to be caught up in the air with us and so we’ll be with the Lord forever. This is the passage that the word rapture comes out of. Rapture just means being caught up. We’re going to be caught up in the air, and I assuming none of us will be scared of heights. I for a long time when I was younger told people that I didn’t believe in the rapture, and then I read this passage and I realized I dreadfully want to believe in the rapture. We may argue about when it’s going to occur in relationship to other things, but we want to get there.
The other neat verse is the end of verse 17, “We will always be with the Lord.” That’s my favorite definition of Heaven. That’s what Heaven is, whatever it looks like I don’t care, it’s the presence of God. When Revelation describes Heaven it sounds odd—it’s square, it’s hard, there’s no grass, everything is all gold and pearls and we’re standing on top of each other. I understand what Revelation is doing, but Heaven is where God is, and we have a direct presence with him and we’re with him forever. That’s my favorite verse on Heaven.
He continues then to talk in chapter 5 about when this will happen. The point he makes is that it’s going to come like a thief in the night, in other words, it’s going to come suddenly—it’s going to come—there’s going to be no immediate warning. We talked about this in the Mark 13 passage that when he comes, it’s there, there’s no time to repent; that why the nations are mourning. It’s interesting then what Paul does is he repeats Jesus’s warning that what we should be worried about is whether we are ready. Don’t worry about when it’s going to happen, just make sure that you are ready and that seems to be the gist of what he’s saying there.
He concludes with a summary of admonitions, and again these are some of the greatest verses in the Bible. Verse 16, “Rejoice always,” unless you’ve had a bad morning and someone’s ticked you off then you can be critical? No. “Pray without ceasing (17), give thanks (18)” in some circumstances”—no “in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit (19).” Verse 22, “Abstain from every form of evil.” There’s holiness, but it’s a great collection of last minute ideas that he throws in. That’s the first letter he wrote back to the Thessalonian church.
Evidently Paul wasn’t able to answer all of Thessalonians questions and so he wrote a second letter. Just because of the timing of things and the way 2 Thessalonians reads, we assume that just a little time has passed—maybe a couple of months, but just a little bit of time. There are three basic issues that are still bothering the Thessalonians, so Paul hits on these things pretty hard.
Persevere in the Face of Persecution (2 Thess. 1:5-12)
In 1:5-12 he again talks about the whole need to persevere in the face of persecution and to not let persecution detract you from your Christian commitment, but to hang in there and to persevere. He adds the note here that when Jesus returns in judgment, God is going to wreak vengeance on those who are persecuting you now. Do you ever pray that? It’s hard to pray that, but it’s biblical; God is a God of vengeance. Our prayers for our enemies should be that they repent and become Christians. In addition, these people who are persecuting you so badly, God will punish eventually. When it comes to a discussion of the justice of God, like in Habakkuk, a lot of it is just wait. God is going to make all thing right, he will reward goodness, he will punish wickedness, but he’s going to do it on his timetable. A large part of the punishment for the wicked is evidently going to happen at judgment. He covers that issue.
Jesus’s Return is Future (2 Thess. 2)
Then in chapter 2 he gets back on Eschatology and the Eschatological question in 1 Thessalonians is, if those people die before Christ comes back again, do they get to go to Heaven? In 2 Thessalonians it’s a little different. What evidently was being taught, some people were saying that Jesus had already come back again that there was probably a secret return. Paul is going to address that. Let me start reading in 2:1, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers (1), not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit (2)” (probably like a prophetic word) “or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us,” in other words, people are saying that Paul is teaching this secret return of Christ and Paul says I’m not, “to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” See there’s the problem. “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first,” (which we call from Revelation the Great Apostasy) “and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction (3),” whom John calls the Antichrist.
What he’s saying is that Jesus can’t have come back again because before he comes back again there’s going to be this huge leaving of people from the church and the Antichrist is going to be revealed. We work this Eschatology back in Mark 13, I don’t need to repeat that, but he goes on to discuss the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness, “4who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” That’s the essence of the Antichrist. He goes on to say that Satan gives him his power to do miracles, so the Antichrist, the man of lawlessness will be miracle worker, but he’s going to claim to be God and that’s the key to identifying him. He goes on in verse 8, “Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” In other words, he will immediately be gone. That’s how powerful the Antichrist is—Jesus just appears, breathes, and he’s gone. That gives us hope to persevere in difficult times because ultimately we know who wins the battle.
Among other things, this is a key passage for understanding the 666 passage in Revelation. Now I’m not assuming that everybody is going to believe this. There are a million different explanations for what 666 is: The mark of the beast inscribed in our hands and heads in order to do business during the Great Tribulation. Seven is the number of perfection, six is the number for man so the number for God as the Trinity is 777, and Revelation talks about God’s number being written in our foreheads, but he doesn’t give us the numerical value. 666 is the man who claims to be God. You don’t have to believe it, but that’s what I think 666 is. It comes out of this passage because the essence of the Antichrist is he claims to be God and that understanding of 666 fits. I like to joke that I know who the Antichrist is—it’s my father, because his name is Robert Hayden Mounce, six letters in each name, and we lived in Kentucky on 666 Windmill Way, and he wrote a Commentary on Revelation. Not really. I think the Antichrist is a human being who claims to be God, and it comes primarily out of that passage.
Look at verse 15, less we be lost in all the Eschatology rhetoric of the passage. What’s the whole point? Well, part of the point is in verse 8L he’s going to lose, Jesus is going to win. But as far as you and I are concerned, verse 15 is the point: “Then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us.” The whole call is to persevere in our faith, to hang on to the Gospel as Paul had taught.
Idleness (2 Thess. 3)
Let me briefly mention that the third thing is idleness. It definitely is going to be a real problem and in 3:6 he says, "Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us." Part of Paul’s teaching evidently was that you work, and to not work is to defy the message of the apostle. He tells them, don’t have anything to do with these people. Look at verse 10, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Evidently there was a real problem in the Thessalonian church with people not wanting to work and expecting the church to pay their way. This is the unusual thing about this: it’s not that he just says, don’t give them any money, he says don’t have anything to do with them. Socially ostracize them. That strikes strong.
You’ll notice we’re getting to an area of what today we call church discipline. When someone has refused to acknowledge the truth when you’ve gone to them one-on-one, and you’ve taken witnesses, and you’ve brought them before the elders, and he’s brought before the church, the final stage of church discipline of a sinning Christian is to have nothing to do with them at all. Evidently there was something about their laziness in Thessalonica that even being lazy and not working was grounds for church discipline. I never would have thought that if I hadn’t read it, but it is interesting. Look at the qualification down in verses 14 and 15, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed (14). Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (15).” Church discipline is always to be done kindly, gently, and firmly with an eye to repentance, treating them as a brother. That’s the balance that is really hard for any of us that have had to do this. It’s really hard, but that’s what you have to do. You say, “Okay, the Scripture says I can’t have anything to do with you, but I love you and I hope you repent, and when you do I will receive you back in.” Evidently it was over something even like being really lazy and sponging off the church. I’ve never heard of church discipline done for that. I’ve heard it done for theological heresy, for immoral behavior, like 1 Corinthians 5, but not for this. There are lots of bits and pieces here, but these are a great two letters to a young church and the problems they were having.
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