When we go to our local church, we are going to a place that is set within a context. The city in which it is located, or if it is a country church, the rural area surrounding it plays a part in shaping the church. The people who attend the church also spend a great amount of time within the context of the church, and so the problems of the context will become the problems of the people. Therefore, to understand a church, you must understand the surroundings, and the churches of the New Testament are no different.
The city of Thessalonica was a city located in the northern part of Greece. It was founded in 315 BCE by King Cassander, the Macedonian general, who named the city after his wife, Thessalonike. Since the city was located at the intersection of two major trade routes, it quickly flourished, becoming the most important city, and later the capital of Macedon.
In the Bible, we are introduced to Thessalonica during Paul’s second missionary journey with Silas. After their miraculous escape from the prison in Philippi, Paul and Silas came to this established city to preach the gospel (Acts 17:1). Paul preached for three successive Sabbaths in the synagogue, reasoning from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 17:3). The Jewish population was not pleased with their message and rose up against Paul, Silas, and the few Jews who believed the message. One Christian by the name of Jason had accommodated Paul and Silas in his home and had covered for them as they escaped the city. The initial consequence for Jason and the other believers was simply to pay a fine.
Both of Paul’s letters come sometime later, possibly around the year 50 AD, and they come as a result of the report he heard of them.
Like many of the other New Testament churches, this church had both Jews and Gentiles. However, the Gentiles far outnumbered the Jews in this congregation. Yet, Paul does not have to deal with unity because the faith of the believers is a faith that is producing good works towards each other.
From the content of the letters, we understand that this church was truly a group of fledgling believers in a hostile environment. There were two problems which caused Paul to write the letters: first, the church had some misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ, and second, they were under constant threat of persecution.
However, Paul begins his first letter with joy over their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus.” Despite the hostility of the culture, the strength of their faith was most evident. In fact, it was so evident that believers throughout the area had heard of them and were encouraged by them. Their faith should inspire and encourage us to trust in Christ and continue the work of God despite the opposition we face today.
Paul continued encouraging the church in their faith by bolstering the assurance that their faith was indeed real. They had not believed a message that sprung from an attitude of greed or malice. They had not believed a cunning message from man. Rather, the message proclaimed to them was indeed the clear and simple gospel. It was truly the Word of God they had received.
Although this church was strong in faith, it struggled to properly understand the second coming of Christ. That is why the second letter was necessary. What they had learned from the Scriptures and from Paul’s first letter seemed to be misunderstood by some, and this was not promoting unity. Some thought that the “day of the Lord” had already occurred.
What was Paul’s answer to this? In essence, it was this: “Concern yourself with the truth and your growth in faith, the events have not yet occurred, for if they had, you would have seen them” (see 2 Thess. 2:15).
We have much to learn from these letters because we too live in a time where Christians are far too concerned with figuring out what will take place in the last days. We are in need of Paul’s gentle reminder to focus on true doctrine and good fruit—the essence of our faith. Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians is an encouragement to us today:
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess. 3:1-5).