It is profitable, and I think exciting, to take a big-picture look at Acts 15, 16, 17 and 18 as we begin this study. These chapters contain parts of Paul’s second missionary journey beginning with the conclusion of the Counsel at Jerusalem in Acts 15. From there Paul and his new partner Silas return to Asia Minor and begin to retrace Paul’s steps. Along the way they pick up a young man named Timothy, and the narration changes from “he” to “we.” For the next few chapters the group that is along for the missionary journey is comprised of (at least) Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke.
By the time Paul reaches Corinth, he has suffered persecution in Thessalonica and Berea, and frustration in Athens and Corinth. We get a glimpse of his mindset in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 where he tells the Corinthians that by the time he got there he was resolved to speak nothing but Christ and Him crucified. He had decided that no matter what he did it would bring difficulty in his path, so he might as well preach Christ alone.
While he is in Corinth, Paul receives word from Timothy about the state of the church in Thessalonica. Apparently the word was relatively good. When Paul opens the epistle to the Thessalonians, he is thankful for their steadfastness and their faith. We can imagine Paul breathing a little fresh air as he hears that the last trip through all the persecution and difficulty had been worth it for the Thessalonican church.
Dealing with the dating of a book in the Bible is often tedious and boring work, but 1 Thessalonians has a certain payoff. Given some of the dating we are able to line up with secular history (as a result of Acts 18 and Paul’s trip to Corinth), many have concluded that 1 Thessalonians was written about 50 AD. What is interesting about that number is that, along with Galatians, 1 Thessalonians is likely the earliest written record we have of Christianity.
Look at it this way. In the Gospels we have the life and words of Christ. In the epistles what we have are the records of the apostles and the early church struggling to interpret and apply the life and words of Christ. When we read 1 Thessalonians, we are reading this process in its rawest of forms. In essence, the apostles were working with the same issues we are. We want to know what it means to be a Christian in our world-how does being a Christian make me different? That is exactly the issue Paul and the other apostles were addressing when they wrote to people who were pagan Greeks or Orthodox Jews just months before.
What makes me a Christian, and what does being a Christian make me?
In this small verse we should pause and pay attention to what we might call Paul’s “assumptions” about the church. The first I want to mention is that he labeled the church as being “in God the Father.” The word “in” carries with it not only the sense of belonging to God, but dependence on God as well. The church begins and ends with God. There is a great deal of pressure in our culture to reshape church in anthropocentric terms-to make people the focus of church in inappropriate ways. Paul’s vision is very different. The church is always theocentric. It is always about and for God and everything else flows from there. The church exists because of the will and work of God, and for the will and work of God. Os Guiness put it this way when he said that when we make the masses sovereign instead of the message, we have lost the focus and purpose of the Church.
And then there is the “tag line” of “Grace and Peace to you.” With phrases as common and simple as this one, it is easy to gloss over it and loose its intended impact. These terms for Paul have theological content, and are not simple greetings. One way to look at this line is as if Paul is saying, “I pray that God’s work among you would continue (grace), and that the natural consequences of His work would take hold (peace).” I want to leave off my thoughts with a passage from Isaiah about peace. I love this passage in part because it gives me a condition-it gives me something I can check in my life to see whether I am succeeding or falling short of the goal.
Isaiah 26:3 (ESV)
You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.