Introduction to Thessalonians
October 20th, 1957 @ 10:50 AM
1 Thessalonians 1:1
INTRODUCTION TO THESSALONIANS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Thessalonians 1:1
10-20-57 10:50 a.m.
You’re sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the Pastor bringing the morning message. The message is an introduction to the epistles of the advent – the letters of Paul, the apostle, to the church at Thessalonica.
The sermon this morning is divided into two parts. First, the message of this hour, then it will be continued at the evening hour. Then, the next Sunday I preach here, it will be continued again. I could not begin to encompass in one address the preparation I have made in the introduction of our people to this Thessalonian letter from Paul.
Now, these little letters, one of them of five chapters, the other of [three] chapters, are most significant and meaningful. They encompass, surprisingly so, as you shall see in the body of the message – they encompass almost all of the great doctrines of the Christian faith. They are not only deeply significant and marvelously meaningful, but they are remarkable little letters, unusually so, surprisingly so. And, this morning’s hour, we’re going to look at some of the things that comprise their remarkableness.
First, they take their name – like the books of Ruth and Esther in the Old Testament – they trace their name to a very famous woman. In 323 BC, Alexander the Great [336-323 BCE] died in Babylon. He left no heir. He had no son, and his great Graeco Empire was divided among his warring generals.
Ptolemy [Ptolemy Soter I, 367-283 BCE] won Egypt. Seleucus Nicator [Seleucus I Nicator, 358-281 BCE], whose mother was named Laodicea, whose father was named Antiochus – Antioch – who had a great passion for building cities, some of whom are named in the Bible – this man, Seleucus Nicator, won Syria and Palestine. Lysimachus [360-281 BCE] won what is today Turkey – Asia Minor; and Cassander [350-297 BCE] won Macedonia; and Achaia won Hellas – won what we call Greece.
Now, in 315 BC, Cassander founded his capital at a very ancient place called Therma. In our language, we’d call it "Hot Springs" or "Warm Springs." It was strategically located at the head of the Aegean Sea and commanded the passes where the mountains sweep down to the sea. And he named his new capital Thessalonica after the name of his wife who was Alexander the Great’s stepsister [Thessalonike of Macedon, d. 295 BCE]. She was a very remarkable and famous and glorious woman, and Cassander named his capital city after her.
In 168 BC, the Romans conquered that part of the Graeco Empire, and, twenty years later, in 148 BC, made that section up there in the north above Achaia, above Athens up there, they made it a province and called it Macedonia – the Roman province of Macedonia. And they made the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia at Thessalonica. It was always, and still is, a great and flourishing and famous city.
In 42 BC, on the plains of Philippi nearby, was fought the war between Octavius Caesar [Gaius Octavius, 63 BCE-14 CE] and Antony [Marcus Antonius, 83-30 BCE] and the Republic on the other side – Brutus [Marcus Junius Brutus, 85-42 BCE] and Cassius [Gaius Cassius Longinus, 85-42 BCE]. And because Thessalonica proved loyal to Octavius, later Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony, it was given the status of a free city. They paid no taxes. They ran their own government – an unusual choice, life for that age.
It was a queenly city. Cicero [Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BCE] loved to stay there. He wrote many of his famous letters from Thessalonica. He was there with the army of Pompey [Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, 106-48 BCE] in 48 BC, just before the Battle of Pharsalia [48 BCE] where Julius Caesar conquered and overwhelmed Pompey just north of that country.
I say, it was a very strategic city and still is. Today, they have shortened the name to Salonica. It is still, though, officially Thessalonica. Today it is a city of about a quarter million people, located at the head of the Aegean Sea, a seaport; and in the days of the Roman Empire, the Hellespontian end of the Via Ignatia, the great Roman road from east to west from the Adriatic to the Hellespont. Now, I say, these letters are remarkable because of the city in which the church is located, named after a very famous woman.
Again, these letters are remarkably interesting and full of enlightenment for the child of God because they are the first inspired letters that Paul wrote. They are the first inspired letters, doubtless, of the New Testament. Unless James is earlier, these are the first that were ever written. And, I say, they are the first letters of the apostle Paul.
He begins here: "Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus" – Paul and Silas and Timothy – "unto the church of the Thessalonians . . . " [1 Thessalonians 1:1]. Now, he begins the second Thessalonian letter the same way: "Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians . . . " [2 Thessalonians 1:1]. Those are the three men who, on Paul’s second missionary journey, brought the Gospel to the city and citizens of Thessalonica [Acts 17:1-4]. On that missionary journey, they stayed there in the city some think less than a month’s duration [Acts 17:2]. If that’s true, it is a phenomenal thing that he could have built such a church in so brief a time. But in any event, he did not stay very long – just a little while. But God miraculously, marvelously, unbelievably blessed their Gospel witness, and, in that brief time, a wonderful church – and large – was organized in Thessalonica [Acts 17:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10].
Now, Paul was driven away after that little brief while by persecution that broke out viciously [Acts 17:5-10], and he and his companions were forced to leave, going to Berea, then down to Athens [Acts 17:10-16]. While Paul was in Athens, he tried, he sought, to go back to Thessalonica. He says, "I sought once and again, but Satan hindered" [1 Thessalonians 2:18]. Twice, he says, he tried to return, but Satan interfered and he could not. So in Athens – while Paul was waiting in Athens – he sent Timothy up there to Thessalonica to see how those new converts were doing [1 Thessalonians 3:1-2]. Now, while Timothy was in Thessalonica, Paul went on to Corinth and began his superlatively productive, effective ministry in the city of Corinth [Acts 18:1-28]. While Paul was in Corinth, Timothy came back from Thessalonica to report to him and Timothy brought a marvelous, glorious report [1 Thessalonians 3:6-9]. And when Paul heard it, he sat down and wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians.
After about five months, why, Paul wrote a second letter up there from Corinth, in his great ministry at Corinth. After about five months, after the first letter, he wrote a second letter up there because of a misunderstanding in the church, and those are the two letters we have before us. So, I say, they are remarkable because they are the first letters of Paul and came to pass in that unusual way that I’ve described.
Now, a third thing that makes them remarkable epistles: they are written to new converts, converts out of pagan idolatry. They have just been converted. These Christians at Thessalonica have not been Christians a year – just a few months – when Paul writes these letters. And, yet, when you read these letters and look at the doctrinal content of these epistles, it is almost again unbelievable that new converts out of pagan idolatry could have been appreciative of the tremendously meaningful doctrines – Christian doctrines – that Paul speaks of here in these pages.
Why, if a fellow had gone to the seminary for forty years, you would expect him to know something about what Paul was speaking of, but these new pagan, heathen, Gentile converts who’d been worshiping idols all their lives, for them to enter in to what Paul is speaking of here – the doctrines of salvation, of assurance, of sanctification, of the Trinity, of the nature of man, of the judgment day of the Lord, of the second advent of Christ – all of these things he writes to them as though they were perfectly familiar with them. It is an astounding thing, I say – a remarkable thing.
Look! These converts, less than a year old, had no New Testament. It wasn’t written. It was just being written. Not only that, but it is doubtful if they had any large portion of the Old Testament. This Book, what you call a book, a biblios, called a codex – codex, really – this book is an invention of the Christian preacher. Until the Christian preacher came along, all of your books were scrolls. There would be a scroll of Isaiah, a scroll of Jeremiah, a scroll of Genesis, and to take the whole Bible with you, you’d have had to had a little cart to haul it along.
The Christian preacher invented the Bible because, when he was preaching the Gospel of Christ, he was proving Jesus to be the true Messiah of the Old Testament. So he quoted from the scroll of Isaiah and the scroll of Jeremiah and the scroll of Moses. But he couldn’t have all those scrolls before him and unwind them and find the passage written and read it. So he invented this way of taking the scroll and cutting it up, then taking the back part of it and binding it together in pages, and that’s where your book – what you call a Book – came from. It’s a Christian codex. It’s the scroll cut up and bound at the back so that the Christian preacher could quickly turn through it and tell the people, "Right here in Isaiah 53 it says . . . " and then he preached the Gospel.
Well, I say, it is doubtful whether these Thessalonian Christians had any part, or any large part, of the Old Testament at all. They just had the preaching, the Gospel ministry, of the apostle Paul. And it is an amazing thing how they have entered into the heart and spirit of the whole revelation of God.
Another thing about these Christians: that persecution that failed to harm the apostles – they were sent away in the night and so escaped [Acts 17:10] – that persecution that failed to harm the apostles broke full over the head of these new Christians [1 Thessalonians 1:6]. They were suffering in tribulation [1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4-5]. And when Timothy comes back and reports to Paul however their property is confiscated, their people placed in prison, flagellation almost the order of every day, suffering and blood and tears, however, they are still as true to Christ as the day they gave their hearts in faith to Jesus [1 Thessalonians 3:6-9]. I say, it is a remarkable thing.
All right, now we continue. Another remarkable thing – this is the last one, the fourth one. Not only is it remarkable of the doctrinal content of these letters, but it is doubly meaningful and interesting because the great doctrine that Paul is speaking of here is the doctrine of the return of Christ – the second coming of the Lord. How come him to write it briefly was this.
As you will see, Paul, in his message to unconverted people, preached the judgment of God and the return of the Lord and our accountability to Him. He preached that to the pagan idol worshiper, to the heathen, and they turned in faith and accepted Jesus and were waiting for Him from heaven. In the meantime, some of their number died and the Lord hadn’t come. So Timothy brought back that sorrowful bereavement and that theological consternation: "Our beloved dead have been laid away and the Savior hasn’t come. What of them? Will they have a part in the kingdom? Is the kingdom of God just this present earth: good government, fine citizenship, two chickens in every pot, two cars in every garage, world peace and government? Is that the kingdom of God, and these who die are forever shut out and lost?"
That was their question, and Paul answered it in the first Thessalonian letter. What of these who die and what of the nature of the return of our Lord and the kingdom He shall establish in the earth? That’s the first letter [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18].
All right, the second letter. Somebody or somebodies – we do not know – wrote spurious letters and signed Paul’s name to them, or to it, and circulated it up there in the Thessalonian church. And that spurious forgery, which told all about these things of the coming of the Lord in the wrong way, created great difficulty among the church people [2 Thessalonians 2:1-2]. So Paul writes the second Thessalonian letter to tell the people the time, the order of events, what must come to pass before the Lord returns, to correct misapprehensions and mistakes and things that were said in his name that he did not say and things written in his name that he did not write [2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:15]. So it is very interesting, I say, because of the subject matter of the epistles.
Now, look at this. Every one of the letters of the New Testament, each one of the epistles, each one of these books, has in it a great theme, a great theme, because they were written in response to a certain need. There was something that brought the letter out of the heart from the pen of the apostle. In the books, for example, of Romans and Galatians, he’s talking about justification by faith. You don’t have to keep the Law of Moses in order to become a Christian, but we’re saved not by the works of the Law but by trusting Jesus [Galatians 2:16]. That’s the great theme of Galatians and Romans. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, you have an encyclical, you have a general letter, and it concerns the church of Jesus. In Philippians, you have a sweet, personal letter – the Christian life at its best, at its brightest, at its sweetest.
In the letters, the pastoral letters to Timothy and to Titus, you have the Christian ministry and the work of the pastor and evangelist. In the Book of the Hebrews, you have an appeal to a little church that is just about to apostasize from the Christian faith and return to Judaism, and he is writing there the superiority of the Christian faith to Judaism – that all of those types and symbols prefigured, adumbrated, the glorious truth we have in Christ Jesus. I say, all of these letters have a purpose.
Now, the Thessalonian letters have a purpose also, and that purpose is to present in God-inspired, God-directed form these things of the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. The theme runs through the books kind of like a golden thread in every chapter: by faith, by committal of life, we trust in the first coming of Jesus, our Savior, and, by that same faith, we wait for the second coming of Christ when He returns to earth. And in all things of service and sacrifice, according to Paul, that blessed hope is to be inspiration and encouragement [1 Thessalonians 4:16-18].
Now, may I say a word about the preaching of the apostle Paul? When Paul came to Thessalonica and began to preach, he made an impression upon his enemies, and that impression is said by those enemies to the chief of the city in Thessalonica [Acts 17:5-6]. I told you that Thessalonica was a free city, and the highest government of the city was the city mayor and council we’d call it today. Now, his enemies who stirred up trouble took Paul and Silas and Timothy and carried them before the highest tribunal of the city and cried, saying – now, look what these men say that these preachers are saying:
These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;
Whom Jason hath received there in his house: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.
When Paul preached and his enemies stood out there and listened to the preacher preaching Jesus, the impression they got was that He is a king and that He has a kingdom and that it’s going to be established here in the earth. That’s what his enemies were impressed with. Well, evidently, that’s what Paul was preaching. He was preaching that this Jesus is a king and He has a kingdom, and, some of these days, He’s coming back to this earth to establish His kingdom among men, openly, visibly and personally. And that, to the enemies, was an insult to the throne of Caesar. And they made their way here in the seventeenth chapter of Acts, the sixth and seventh verses, to lay complaint against this new king and this new kingdom.
So, I say, the burden of Paul’s preaching, as you’d listen to him, was that we have a King and He’s in heaven, and, some day, we shall see Him again and live forever in His sight. That’s a great Gospel message. It has hope for the future. However it may be dark, however the course of history may run, they who trust in Jesus "shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever" [Psalm 125:1].
In the days of the Korean War when the country was subjugated by the Japanese military – this first Korean War – after the country was subdued by the Japanese military, the Japanese officials brought before them the leader of our Baptist association of churches. We’d call him the president of the convention, the moderator of the association. And those Japanese officials were interrogating the leader of our little Baptist churches in Korea. And as they interrogated and interrogated, they finally came about Jesus and finally about where this Jesus was and what He was and what He was going to do. And the Japanese officials said, "So, your Jesus is a king?"
"Yes," said the pastor, "He is a king."
"And what of this king?"
"He is coming again," said this Baptist pastor.
"And when He comes again," said the Japanese officials, "what shall He do?"
And the pastor replied, "He shall establish the kingdom of God in earth."
"And then," said the Japanese officials, "Then what?"
"Then," said this Baptist pastor, "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Christ, to the glory of God the Father" [Philippians 2:10-11]
And the Japanese officials asked, "Does that include our emperor?"
And the pastor replied, "Yes. It includes your emperor, for every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Christ and Lord."
And the Japanese officials said, "Do you believe this personally, or do all of you pastors believe it?"
And, speaking for all of his Baptist pastors, he replied, "Not only do I, but we all believe it."
And they took him and every Baptist pastor in Korea and incarcerated them in prison throughout that long occupation of Japan. Many of them died, and at the end of the occupation when the country was liberated, this pastor, who was associational leader of the churches, was liberated. But because of deprivation and because of long imprisonment, he died upon his liberation.
We believe there is another King above the thrones of the earth, above all of the records of time, above the development of human history. We believe that God lives, that God has a throne, that Jesus Christ shares it with the Father in heaven, on His right hand, and some day, He shall have His own throne in the earth and He shall reign among men, openly, visibly, triumphantly. We have a king.
"Aren’t thou a king then?"
"Thou sayest that I am the king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the earth"
Our King, the Lord Jesus.
So, I say then that when Paul preached, he preached that Jesus was a coming king.
Now, another thing about the preaching of Paul. In the first chapter of the first Thessalonian letter, look what Paul says, "preaching unto you this message that came unto you" [from Acts 17:3]: " . . . how ye turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God; and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come" [1 Thessalonians 1:9-10].
Paul says there that it was this that brought conviction to their hearts and that turned them in conversion to Jesus – that some day the Lord would judge the quick and the dead, and this Jesus has died to save us from that awful wrath, and that, some day, He is coming again and we are to wait for Him from heaven. And, he says, it was this that turned them to God from idols.
So if we follow the apostle Paul in his inspired Gospel and in his blessed preaching, we’re preaching to men that there’s a day of wrath that is coming. There’s a judgment day of Almighty God, and some day, we shall stand before Him to give an account for the deeds done in the flesh and that that reckoning is sure and certain [2 Corinthians 5:10].
And Paul preached that, and it brought conviction to the hearts of those who listened. And they turned from their idols to serve the true and the living God and to wait for the Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead and who delivered us from that wrath and that judgment that is yet to come [1 Thessalonians 1:9-10]. Now, there’s a lot of meaning in that. Before these days are past, we shall just pause and preach of some of these things. I say, there is much meaning in that.
If, God helping me, this is the truth – if all there is to the Christian faith is the here and the now, it doesn’t matter. Some other philosophy will do just as well. Be a Confucianist, be a materialist, be a socialist, be any kind of an "-ist," or be "nothingist." It doesn’t matter. If all there is to it is just here and now, don’t bother yourself. It doesn’t matter. If all there is to this is just here and now, then the whole Christian faith is like a bridge half built and over the high waters it stops. There’s no other side. There’s no further. There’s no over and beyond. It’s just here, and it stops.
If that’s all, "We are of all men most miserable and wretched" [from 1 Corinthians 15:19]. We have a faith. It’s not a faith. It’s a phony. We have a hope. It’s not a hope. It’s a helplessness. We have a Christ and a Savior, but He’s not a Christ and a Savior. He’s just another dead man like all the other men who have lived in the earth.
The basis of the Christian faith is this: there’s something else. There’s something further. There’s something beside. There’s something over and beyond. What we see is temporal. The things we do not see are eternal. The things of God shall abide forever [Isaiah 40:8]. These, like the grass of the field and the flower of the vase, shall wither and die away.
The Christian faith is that beyond – beyond the horizon, beyond the setting sun, beyond the dark waters of the river Jordan, there’s something other and beyond. There’s something else and beside, and beyond the dark course of human tragedy and history, tears and pain and sorrow and death, beyond there lies the celestial city and the promise of God.
If that is not true, there is nothing but dust and ashes in our hands. "Our hope is in heaven; from whence we look for the Savior . . . who shall change our vile body, like into His own glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able to work, to bring to pass, to achieve all of these glorious things" [from Philippians 3:20-21] Heaven and earth may pass away, but His Word and His promise will never pass away [Mark 13:31]. So we have, I say, in the apostle Paul, we have the preaching of another life and another kingdom and another destiny – one hid with Him in heaven.
Now – and I’ll have to close – do you notice that this is preached to new converts? They haven’t been Christians for a year. So may I draw the corollary? The doctrine, the preaching, the revelation, the hope of heaven and of our Savior and of our ultimate triumph in Him is not some deep, esoteric doctrine that is just for deeply spiritual and taught Christians, but it is of the essence of the Gospel itself. It is for the neophyte, the novice, the new convert, the one who has just found the Lord. It’s for him. It’s for you to know. It’s for you to love. It’s for you to understand. It’s for you to embrace. It’s for you to believe in – for you.
You may just have been saved. It’s not for that one who, all of his life, has delved into the deep, apocalyptic discourses of the Book. No. But this is the Gospel itself. It’s for you. It’s for you. In any trial, in any – in any bereavement, in any sorrow, in any turn or fortune of life, this is for you. This is the Gospel. We have a living hope [1 Peter 1:3]. So Paul, even though those Christians were just young, had just been saved, even Paul is speaking to them of the blessed and precious promises we have in our Lord.
Now, this morning, while we sing our song, somebody you, to give his heart to the Lord, somebody you, put his life in the church, while we make appeal, you come and stand by me. Down these stairwells, from side to side, "This day, I give my heart to Christ and I give my hand to you." Or a family to join the church or just one somebody you: as the Spirit leads the way, you come while all of us stand and sing.
I. Like Ruth, Esther, epistles trace
their name to a famous woman
the Great died 323 BC; empire divided among his four generals
won Macedonia; named his new capital Thessalonica after the name of his wife,
42 BC, battle of Philippi resulted in status of free city
Queenly city; commercial and political center, seaport
II. First inspired letters written by Paul
Addressed to young Christians, converted from pagan idolatry
Silas and Timothy brought the gospel(1 Thessalonians
1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1, Acts 17)
away by persecution, Paul sought to go back(1
1. Paul sends Timothy,
who brings good report to Paul in Corinth
2. After report, Paul
wrote first letter; second written six months later
III. Their doctrinal content
young Christians, they were familiar with deep truths of the faith
they had any large portion of Old Testament
under great persecution, yet true to Christ
IV. The nature of the chief doctrine
and manner of the return of Christ
Some of their number had died – what of them?
1. Paul answered in the
epistles created havoc among the faithful
1. So the second letter
V. Each of New Testament epistles were
written in response to a need
the advent epistles
of Paul about the coming King made impression upon his enemies(Acts 17:6-7, Psalm 125:1, John 18:37)
1. Japanese conquest of
Korea – Baptist leader testified of the King
of the judgment to come awakened conscience of the unconverted (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)