In the course of their momentous journey through Asia Minor westwards into Europe Paul and Silas visited the churches Paul and Barnabas had established a couple of years previously in south-eastern Anatolia. The year is AD 50. From the congregation at Lystra they took into their company a young man of half-Jewish parentage named Timothy and these three companions then made their way north-westwards towards the Bosporus following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Instead of heading for the great cities of the western seaboard (Ephesus and Miletus) they felt constrained to make for Europe. And so in the summer of that year they found themselves travelling from city to city along the Aegean coast, through the Roman province of Macedonia: Neapolis (now called Kavála), Philippi, Amphipolis, Apollonia and the provincial capital Thessaloniki.
Paul’s adventures in Philippi and the miraculous earthquake that secured his and his companions’ freedom from prison are described in Acts 16. In Thessaloniki, the largest city in the region, Paul preached in the synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths. Some of his hearers were converted; others, however, were enraged at this disruption to their community, gathered a mob and accused Paul and the others before the city magistrates of disturbing the peace by their provocative teaching. Paul’s converts thought it best that he should leave the city for a while to let matters cool and sent him on to the next city on the south-western road, Beroea (Véria in modern Greek). But he got no peace here either: despite the sympathetic hearing his preaching received, opponents from Thessaloniki pursued him and once more raised a crowd. Again the new Christians had to suggest that he put himself out of the Thessalonians’ reach, this time by taking ship down the coast to Athens. From there, after his famous address to a gathering of philosophers on the Areopagus, a rocky hill facing the Acropolis, he made his way to Corinth. Here Silas and Timothy joined him. Timothy brought news from a second visit to Thessaloniki, which he had taken from Athens at Paul’s instigation.
Having received Timothy’s report Paul felt he must write to encourage his new Thessalonian converts and the letter he penned is our First Thessalonians. We shall not appreciate the force of this intensely personal letter unless we bear in mind the violence with which Paul’s opponents had reacted to his preaching and the persecution which it was clear from Timothy’s report the new converts were continuing to experience from the local synagogue leaders.
What, then, are the key themes Paul wishes to convey to these new Christians who were now suffering for accepting the truth he had brought them?
First, encouragement: you have been chosen by God, the power of the Gospel proves its truth and your steadfastness in the faith is admired everywhere in Greece.
Second, fellowship in suffering. I, Paul, suffer with you. I am no cynical wandering exorcist, taking your money and moving on.
Third, our hope is in the coming Judgement, when Jesus Christ will appear and we shall reap the reward of our holy living.
Fourth, keep awake. We do not know when Christ will come again and that should be an incentive not to slip into the old pagan ways. Finally, in what does holy living consist? “Counsel the wayward, encourage the faint-hearted, look after the sick, be patient with everyone. Don’t pay back evil for evil, but pursue what is good for one another and the whole community. Joy, prayer and thankfulness must fill your lives.”
We too do not know when the Lord will come and Paul’s message is as relevant for us as to the Thessalonians of old. Church members should respect their leaders, strive to perfect their own work rather than constantly grumble about others, care for the frail and be patient with other people. Above all, be taught by God to love one another. And if we sometimes find that hard, remember that God’s power is at hand to help us. “Pistós ho kalôn hymás, hos kai poiêsei – He who calls you is faithful, He will carry you through”.