How to Walk and to Please God

Written on: January 1, 2022

Article by: Paul Birston

1 Thessalonians Introduction

Phillip II (382–336 BC), King of Macedon from 359–336 BC, and father of Alexander the Great, named his daughter Thessalonike in honour of his joint victory with the Thessalian confederation in the region of Thessaly over the king and armies of Phocis, a region to the south. Princess Thessalonike was born the same day as this victory. Her father Philip II reportedly said, “Let her be called victory in Thessaly.” So Thessalonike is a combination of Thessaly, the place, and Nike which is Greek for victory.

Princess Thessalonike of Macedon married her father’s fifth successor Cassander who founded the city and named it in her honour ca. 315 BC. The Romans took over Macedonia ca. 148 BC and Thessalonike became a capital city. Marc Antony made Thessalonike a largely self-governing free city in 41 BC.

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Thessalonike is strategically located with an excellent port on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea and the Via Egnatia, the main east-west Roman highway linking Rome to Byzantium and the ancient international trades routes through the eastern Roman Empire, Israel, Egypt and beyond to the Far East. The Via Egnatia connected Thessalonike to Philippi, named after Philip II, 160 km to the east. Berea, where Paul visited after Thessalonike, is 73 km west. Paul’s journey by sea from Thessalonike and Berea to Athena (Athens) would be approximately 515 km.

Thessalonike’s easy access north to the Balkans, including a route to the Danube River, further enhanced its position as a commercial, cultural, political and military centre in New Testament times when Paul first came to Macedonia in response to his night vision: “a man of Macedonia was standing and pleading with him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9).

Thessalonike had many of the essential features of God’s prior work to prepare it to receive and spread the gospel (Galatians 4:4): excellent access by major international road and sea routes, the Greek language, the lingua franca (common)language of the Empire, employment opportunities, a diverse multi-cultural population and a synagogue in keeping with God’s purpose to bring the gospel to the Jews first and then the Gentiles (Acts 26:23; Romans 1:16; 2:9–10) and Paul’s custom of first visiting synagogues with the gospel to reason with the Jews from the Scriptures upon arrival in cities new to him (Acts 17:1–9; 18:19).

The prosperity of Thessalonike is evident in Paul’s ability to find work there and set an example for the believers (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Paul confirms the strategic location of the city as one from which the gospel spread to other parts of Macedonia and Achaia (1:8) where the Christians of Thessalonike also had influence by their positive example.

Opportunity and Opposition

The great strengths and opportunities of Thessalonike are also behind some of the challenges faced by Paul and the new Christians there.

Thessalonike’s royal history, favoured self-rule status with the Romans and a firmly entrenched Jewish presence of the dispersion, help to explain some of the resistance to Paul, his coworkers, new converts and the gospel: “they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This is the same objection the Jews made to Pilate before Jesus’ crucifixion in John 19:12. In Luke’s record of the citizens dragging Jason and the believers before the Thessalonian city authorities, Luke identifies them as politarchs (πολιτάρχας, “elected officials” in 17:6), a unique title attested to in an inscription on Thessalonike’s Vardar city gate. The opponents forced Paul and Silas to leave Thessalonike for Berea (Acts 17:10–11ff) with Timothy presumably following (17:14–15).

The new Thessalonian Christians continued to face opposition after Paul, Silas and Timothy left (1 Thessalonians 12:13–16). Knowing this, Paul was concerned enough to send Timothy back to “to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith” (3:2). He reminds them of the inevitability of suffering affliction for their faith (3:3). Timothy returned to Paul in Corinth with “good news of your faith and love” (3:6). After receiving Timothy’s report, Paul wrote to them ca. AD 52, not many months after he was forced to leave, to further instruct and encourage them.

The wealth and multi-cultural make up of Greco-Roman Thessalonike as an international port on the Via Egnatia trade route also made new members vulnerable to worldly influences, including sexual temptation. Paul exhorts them on “how you ought to walk and to please God” (4:1)…. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from *sexual immorality” (4:3; *porneia is the root of pornography). Paul further says God is able to “sanctify you entirely” (5:23)

Many consider 1 Thessalonians to be Paul’s first letter and 2 Timothy his last. In a chilling affirmation of the worldliness of Thessalonike’s riches, privilege and pleasures, Paul wrote Timothy, “for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).

In light of the opposition they faced and the resources they had at their disposal, the Thessalonians were also tempted to quit working, withdraw from society and prepare for Jesus’ immanent return. Paul sends them valuable information about Jesus’ return and the last days in 4:9–5:11. He exhorts them to keep working and living exemplary lives in peace with one another. Evidently the problems persisted. Paul will provide further revelation on correctly understanding the last days and the imperative to work in 2 Thessalonians.

As he does for the Ephesians and Corinthians, Paul instructs the Thessalonians on the eternal dimensions of their new life in the Holy Spirit, God’s armour for spiritual warfare, spiritual gifts and the power of praise, prayer, prophecy and testing everything according to God’s Word (1:13; 4:4–5:22).

How to Walk and to Please God Today

Today, about 1970 years after Paul wrote to our brothers and sisters in first-century Thessalonike, the modern city of Thessaloniki, the second largest in Greece, remains an influential centre of artistic culture, commerce and education. Providentially, the modern city covers most of the ancient city with the exception of the heart of the Greco-Roman agora/forum with surrounding shops, baths and theatre. This remnant is a reminder of the opportunities and challenges the first-century Christians there faced which are still with us everywhere today.

To guide us, Thessalonians contains many encouraging truths and themes:

Chapter 1:

* labouring by the motives of faith, love and hope

* living as examples of the gospel’s transforming power

Chapter 2:

* receiving the Word as God’s vs. the word of men 

Chapter 3:

* the need for strength and encouragement of our faith

* standing firm in the Lord

* allowing God to establish our hearts in holiness

Chapter 4:

* our sanctification and honour in a highly sexualised society

* love of our brothers and sisters in Christ

* leading a productive quiet life of godly behaviour as a witness to the world

Chapter 4 and 5

* Jesus’ second coming again (parousia) as a thief in the night

* the resurrection of the dead

* meeting the Lord in the air to be with Him forever

Chapter 5

* walking as sons and daughters of light in the last days

* encouragement and edification 

* appreciating hardworking leaders

* living in peace

* rejoicing always

* being constant in prayer

* being thankful in all things

* careful examination of all messages claiming to be from the Spirit

* holding fast to the good, abstaining from evil

* God’s sanctification and preservation of spirit, soul and body

* God’s faithfulness to His promises of sanctification and salvation

In these last days of opportunity and opposition in which we live 1 Thessalonians teaches us many valuable lessons on “how to walk and to please God” (4:1).