God has used my friend Bah more than any other person I know to help me see what full dependence on God looks like. Bah comes from a well off family in a country known for persecuting Christians. A courageous missionary went there and told him about Christ’s love and by God’s grace he became a Christian. As soon as he did, his family disowned him. He lost his job. He lost his rights. He lost his country. He had no time to prepare so he left his country in fear knowing that his whole community would kill him as soon as they caught him. Because of that he has no papers to prove who he is so he lives in a country in the Horn of Africa without an official identity. And yet, he is joyful. He walks life in a peaceful way. He serves in a hospital and prays with the hopeless. He ministers to people about His amazing Savior. He depends on Christ for everything…and His Savior, my Savior, has always provided for him! The story of my friend Bah is very similar to the one of the Thessalonians. And it is one that we should live as well. As we look into the Book of 1 Thessalonians, let’s explore why I say this.
Thessalonians is one of two letters written to a church that Paul and Silas started (read more in Acts 17). Thessalonica was a city in Macedonia. It was an important center of commerce and trade. It was also filled with paganism as they worshipped a god for everything. Sexual immorality was pervasive. There was also a significant Jewish community that disliked what Paul and Silas taught. There is uncertainty about how long Paul stayed there. Some say 3 weeks, others say 3 months. Regardless, we see that after Paul’s preaching during this short period of time, many came to follow King Jesus. However teaching about another King was considered treason against Caesar, The Roman Emperor and so a fierce persecution starts against Christians and Paul and Silas flee for their lives. Some time after Paul wants to touch base with the Thessalonians and he sends Timothy to learn about how they are doing (Acts 17:14-16). Timothy comes back with news that despite of this persecution the church is growing and strong (Acts. 18:5). However, they faced challenges and needed encouragement to persevere in holiness as they hoped in Christ’s return. So Paul writes this letter to provide just that.
The first letter to the Thessalonians can be divided into two main parts: The first 3 chapters would be a commendation as Paul rejoices in the faith, hope and love that they displayed and was bringing others to glory. The last 2 chapters would be Paul’s comments regarding the challenges these believers faced so that the growth they were experimenting would continue in their lives. We will also see Paul praying for them. I love this part because when faced with challenges that seem insurmountable our first response should always be prayer.
Paul starts his letter by focusing on Christ and giving thanks to him for the faith, hope and love that the Thessalonians have had (1 Th. 1:2-4). Paul rejoices in the fact that they have not only received the Gospel but that in living it out they had now a reputation in every place that was encouraging others in their faith (1 Th. 1:8-10). By turning away from their past life of idolatry and self worship to King Jesus and His Kingdom they were becoming persecuted. So following Jesus for them was a costly decision to make. They lost their livelihood, their possessions, their peaceful living, their family. However we see in 1 Th. 2:1-12 how these believers gained a different family, a church family. Even though here Paul is talking about how this church treated him as a leader, we see a picture of church. They shared not only The Gospel but also “our own selves”. This shows unity and love and care and service for each other inside of the church family. And within this family, Paul encourages them to continue faithful in the suffering they were experiencing through persecution knowing that Christ and the prophets before Him too had suffered and in this suffering they were being imitators of Christ (1 Th. 2:14).
In chapter 3:1-10, Paul allows us to see how Timothy went to them to encourage them and how they too had encouraged Paul through the report that he had from Timothy. And in 1 Ts. 3:11-13, he prays for them, that Jesus direct way so that he increases in them as they abound in love for one another so that their hearts may remain blameless in holiness as they have the hope of future grace in Christ. Again, Paul is showing his dependence on Christ to do the impossible. Instead of giving up and caving into the pressures that persecution brings, Paul prayed that Christ would be exalted and that they would be strengthened to persevere.
And so, Paul moves to challenge them and remind them of what following Christ means. This is how every single one of us should live whether in peace and abundance or in persecution and loss. We are called to walk in holiness to please God, to abstain from sexual immorality, to walk in love as we have been taught by God constantly increasing in love. We are to walk diligently particularly as a testimony to those who are outside of the church. We are to walk in hope. This is a huge calling and a great reminder.
During this persecution many Thessalonians had died and there was concern regarding their state at Christ’s return. So Paul apeases them as he gives an illustration that was common in this time. Whenever an emperor would arrive to the city, there was a contingency that came to receive them. Well, in the same way when King Jesus returns there will be a contingency of those sleeping in Christ and those alive in Christ that will meet him and welcome him. So the Thessalonians did not need to worry about what would happen to the dead brothers and sisters at Christ’s return, because Christ has triumphed over death and in that we mourn with hope. Hope in the return of Christ, hope in the destruction of death, hope in reuniting and welcoming our King. This also should kindle our flame as we strive for holiness till He comes back. And so Paul continues by challenging them to walk in the light of Jesus. Finally, Paul challenges them to walk in obedience; respecting those in authority, having concern for one another, always with joy, prayer and thanksgiving and making sure that what they hear and do goes in accordance with The Gospel.
Paul finishes this letter with another prayer this time for perseveration and sanctification (1 Ts.5: 23-28). He prays that this hope that we have in Christ’s future return and all the amazing implications of this would be such that it allows the Thessalonians and us to persevere even when things are dark and hard. He prays that in everything we would become more Christ like and display His faithfulness and the reality of this hope so that others too may see Him in us and know Him as well.
As I told you in the beginning, the Thessalonians and my friend Bah teach us about full dependence in Christ. When in need because of our needs and when in abundance being generous understanding that what we have comes despite of us so that we may see a greater worship of Jesus around us. And so Thessalonians challenge us to live in the hope of Christ regardless of what we are going through and so today I ask you: Are you living in this hope and displaying Christ’s greatness to others or have you lost sight of the real hope you have in Christ? And if you have, will you pray that God will give you a renewed vision of the hope of Christ’s return?