1 THESSALONIANS 2:13-16
13 “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of mere men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which also is at work in you who believe.14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and [r]drove us out. [s]They are not pleasing to God, [t]but hostile to all people, 16 hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always [u]reach the limit of their sins. But wrath has come upon them [v]fully.”
In our last study we discussed the integrity of Paul and his co-laborers as they ministered among the Thessalonians. We discussed the opposition they faced and the suffering they endured in order to bring the gospel to them. This week we will meditate on the manner in which these people received the gospel, and Paul’s charges against those who seek to stop the spread of the gospel.
FOCUS ONE: It should not go unnoticed that Paul again expresses thankfulness for this young church, as he does in 1:2 and 3:9 as well. I mention it because I believe it helps us to understand the “tone” of the Apostle Paul in this letter to the Thessalonians. This letter is not written to correct some deviant theology or to rebuke ungodly living (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians). The church in Thessalonica was young in faith and did not have the pleasure of any extended amount of teaching from Paul (Acts 17); and yet they were relatively sound in what they did know, and it appears, growing in and living out their faith with much joy and zeal.
Paul’s tone is one of affection and thankfulness. As he reflects back in history and remembers his work among them as well as Timothy’s service to them, he is elated at their spiritual growth and their perseverance through suffering as a result of their new found faith in Christ. These people have already proven to be faithful servants of Christ and for that Paul is deeply thankful. And so, with that in mind, Paul writes them these words from Corinth.
Paul expresses his thankfulness for several things:
- Their reception of the word of God
- Receiving it as His word, not men’s
- Their enduring sufferings for following Christ
I think it is time for an “SOS” (Step Outside Study). By that I mean that we need to step outside of this letter and travel back to Thessalonica at the time Paul was their sharing the gospel and ministering to them. For that we need to go to the book of Acts where Pauls missionary travels are recorded.
Acts 17 records their reception of the Word. Paul, as was his custom, went to the synagogue first when he came to a new town, that is if they had one in place. Thessalonica had an active synagogue, and so he went to it and for “three sabbaths reasoned with them from the scriptures” (vs. 2). Some were persuaded, including a great number of Greeks and leading women (vs. 4). Instantly they were engrossed in persecution and Paul and Silas were sent away to a place called Berea (17:5-10).
Now, back to our letter. Back in 1:5 Paul mentions that the gospel (the good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) came to them in “power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” These people “heard” the spoken word of God, in this case, the gospel. That is the message that burned within Paul, and why he went though all the hardships he did on his various missionary journeys. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ “ (Romans 10:17). The Thessalonians received Paul’s message not as a message of a man or from men, but for what it truly was, “the word of God” to them. God, in His amazing grace, did a mighty work of salvation in their hearts. Counting the cost, forsaking much of what they knew, they sacrificed it all for the gospel Paul preached (1:5-6)!
FOCUS TWO: As Paul continues to reflect back to when he was with them proclaiming the gospel, he makes mention of the suffering they endured, and are still still enduring at the time of his writing, for embracing the gospel he preached. In their suffering, Paul says, they have become “imitators” of the churches in Judea (vs. 14). This is the second time that Paul mentions that they are imitators. In 1:6 we find the first expression of this term; I spoke to that in our first study (The Gospel arrives). In chapter one Paul says that they are imitating the Apostles and the Lord Himself! But here, he says that they are imitating the churches in Judea.
How are they imitating all these people? Is there a common link? There is: in their suffering they were following in the same footsteps of those who have come before them. What happened to Jesus for proclaiming “the kingdom of God is at hand?” For proclaiming “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30)? What happened to the disciples after Christ was crucified, buried, and rose again? Persecution happened (Acts 4; 5:17-42; 7:54-8:3).
(1)“Paul tenderly reminds these brothers and sisters that they were not the first to be afflicted. God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus” were the first and through their patient endurance “had become an example of what Jesus predicted about the suffering entailed in discipleship” (Matthew 10:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). The churches in Judea were persecuted by their own “fellow- countrymen,” and so too were the Thessalonians. Ironically, Paul himself, previously known as Saul, was the one persecuting the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). Praise God his persecution of those churches was short lived, as the Lord saved Paul’s soul along the Damascus road (Acts 9).
FOCUS THREE: Paul’s charges against his own countrymen (vs 15):
- They killed the Lord Jesus
- They killed the prophets
- They drove out the Apostles
- They are not pleasing to God
- They are hostile to all men
The Romans, in fact, carried out the gruesome task of beating, scourging, and nailing Christ to the cross, Paul knows that, but he also knows that it was the religious leaders of the day that sought to get rid of Jesus and formed the plot for his demise (John 11:53; Acts 2:36).
Paul’s claim of their killing the prophets is not baseless. Steven, in his defense, boldly makes the same claim (Acts 7:51-52). And Jesus Himself stated this historical truth about the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:29-36).
These same people “drove out” Paul and Silas from Thessalonica because they did not want them to speak to the people and proclaim the gospel of salvation unto them (Acts 17: 5-10).
Paul here also asserts that the Jews are not pleasing to God in their behavior. Rather than living lives that are in subjection to God’s will, they are hostile to him. And as a natural repercussion they are hostile to all men, not only others, but their own people as well. This hostility grieves Paul and causes much pain within his heart (Romans 9:1-5). Paul’s purpose here is not to slander them, He would be willing to take their place in judgement if only they would turn to Christ! Paul is pointing out that by their actions, i.e., opposing God’s servants, and rejecting their message, they are “filling up the measure of their sins,” in other words, one sin is being piled onto another sin until the “measure” or full amount God will allow reaches its fullest.
With that measure of sin filled up, God’s wrath, Paul says, “has come upon them.” What does Paul mean by God’s wrath? Wrath in the Bible has various forms or meanings. Consequential wrath is what we find in “sowing and reaping.” A person living in a lifestyle that is sinful will suffer consequences reflective of their sinful choices. Those consequences are viewed by some to be a resulting wrath or judgement reflective of the consequences of their choices.
Cataclysmic wrath (Hurricanes, earthquakes, severe famine, floods, etc) is evidenced in the Bible in Genesis with the worldwide flood in Noah’s day and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
John MacArthur points to Romans 1 as another type of wrath: the wrath of abandonment. A point in time when God turns away from a group, society, or individual (Romans 1:14,28).
And then there is eternal wrath. This is the ultimate form of wrath from God. As horrific as the others may be, this wrath is far worse because it is eternal and unrelenting. This punishment sees unbelieving mankind cast away from God forever and placed in hell because of their rebellion against Him (Matthew 25:41-46).
Or is he referring to eschatological wrath? The judgements of God that will take place on those who are living during the Tribulation period? While some commentators hold various views as to which of these are possible answers, it seems most likely that Paul was referring to either eschatological wrath or eternal wrath. These seem the most likely if we are keeping in mind other things Paul has said in this epistle, in which those contexts are always dealing with Christ’s second coming and believers being delivered from “the wrath to come” (1:10; 5:9-10).
My personal opinion is that this context is speaking in regards to eternal wrath. (2)“God’s promised eternal wrath for unbelievers is so certain that it is spoken of as having come already as does the Apostle John (cf. John 3:18,36).”
Paul may appear to have no hope for his jewish brethren, but that is certainly not the case. Many Jews have already come to faith in Christ and others will in the future. And according to Paul in Romans 11:25-29, Israel is going through a “partial hardening” until the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” God, Paul is saying, is not through dealing graciously with His people the Jews!
Conclusion: Just as Paul sought to encourage and comfort these believers that were going through much suffering as a result of their faith in Christ, so too, we should be encouraged and comforted. Let’s not be overwhelmed with the thought that we may suffer for the cause of Christ, even by our own families, neighbors, or countrymen. The Bible tells us this will be so. Let us, in light of Paul’s words to these believers, move ahead in faithful obedience to our Lord knowing that we will soon rejoice in the fruit of our labors at His coming!
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT:
- How can we express thankfulness for other believers?
- How is a person saved? What is the gospel message and what does it perform in us (vs. 13)?
- Is our suffering always a result of following Christ? Why or why not?
- Can we expect some level of persecution in our life if we follow Jesus Christ? Does the thought of persecution for following Christ cause you shrink back? Why or why not?
- Do you find it hard to share the gospel when you think people will reject you? If so, what scriptures strengthen you and encourage you to be a witness anyway?
- Robert L. Thomas, Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol 11
- John MacArthur Study Bible, pg. 1845