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Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)
Established November 2008 Published: July 10, 2020
“For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
Paul wrote these two letters circa 52 AD and they hold the distinction of being his earliest writings. Paul, along with his fellow laborers Silas and Timothy, established the church at Thessalonica on his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-14). Thessalonica (Salonika today) was a prominent city of Macedonia and a thriving seaport on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. It was situated along the Egnatian Way which connected Rome with Constantinople and the whole region north of the Aegean. Paul’s missionary trek into Macedonia was not by chance. The Holy Spirit forbade him to take his ministry into Asia and this was confirmed soon thereafter by “a vision” Paul received in the night: “Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:6-10).
Thessalonica was the second major city in Macedonia Paul and Silas visited after having established the first house church on Greek soil at Philippi. They left that city after having been “shamefully entreated” (Acts 16:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 2:2). Paul and Silas then traveled to Thessalonica, and “as his manner was,” went first to the synagogue of the Jews where for “three sabbath days (he) reasoned with them out of the (O.T.) Scriptures,” showing them that Jesus who had been crucified was Israel’s promised Messiah (Genesis 3:15; Acts 17:2; 1 Peter 1:11). Some Jews believed Paul’s message and a great number of Gentiles believed, including several prominent women (Acts 17:3-4). But despite the positive response, trouble again found Paul, as it had in Philippi (Acts 16:16-40). Some of the Jews “believed not” and charged Paul and Silas with sedition and treason against Caesar. These men were so vicious in their hatred of these missionaries that they got together with “certain fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar,” (Acts 17:5-9). They couldn’t locate Paul and Silas so they confronted a new convert named “Jason” but that availed them nothing. Some of the new converts had sent Paul and Silas safely away to Berea, and as per his custom, Paul entered the synagogue there straightaway: “And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews” (Acts 17:10).
The Bereans “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians” (Acts 17:11). They not only received Paul’s message eagerly they took it upon themselves to study the O.T. scriptures daily (not just on the Sabbath) to see if his reasoning was true: “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few” (Acts 17:11-12).
When the Jews at Thessalonica heard Paul and Silas were in Berea preaching “the word of God,” they went there to stir up the people against Paul and Christ: “But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people. And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea: but Silas and Timotheus abode there still. And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed” (Acts 17:13-15).
After all this persecution and rejection, Paul came to Corinth, Greece “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (Acts 18:1; 1 Corinthians 2:3). When Silas and Timothy returned with news about the state of the Macedonian churches, Paul was greatly encouraged and being “pressed in the spirit” he continued to testify to the Jews that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 18:4-5).
Paul’s Purpose in Writing 1 Thessalonians
Every church has its problems. Some of these difficulties are unique to a particular assembly while others are universal. Below I listed three obstacles that had a negative effect on the church at Thessalonica. It’s not an exhaustive list to be sure, but the following difficulties most certainly stand out:
1) Persecution and the struggles associated with it
2) False teachers both within the church and without
3) Spiritual issues related to the Believers’ practical sanctification
When Paul arrived in Thessalonica he preached his message to his kinsmen in the Jewish synagogue as was his custom. Paul won his first converts there, but this is also where he met his most serious opposition. Paul’s ministry lasted several weeks and during that time he worked as a tent maker, not wishing to burden the fledgling assembly with his needs (Acts 18:3). He spent a large portion of his time in the home of Jason, organizing and teaching the Believers (Acts 17:1-9) until his brethren sent him and Silas safely away to Berea. But here’s the thing, the Jews in Thessalonica that believed not were so aggressive and filled with hatred that they were not satisfied simply to drive Paul and Silas from their city. They followed them to Berea and stirred up the people there against them and Christ: “But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people” (Acts 17:13).
After Paul and his companions left Thessalonica, that hatred was redirected toward the church. Paul did not provide us a list of their difficulties, but after receiving the gospel, the Thessalonian Believers patterned their lives after the lives of Paul and his co-workers and the Lord’s life as well (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1). Just as Paul, his companions, and the Lord knew firsthand what suffering was, so the Believers at Thessalonica experienced firsthand what it meant to suffer at the hands of unbelievers (John 15:18, 16:33; Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12).
Paul encouraged these Believers to stand fast not only against persecution but also the pressure to desert the faith and return to their former pagan life style:
“For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe. For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:” (1 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
“And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith: That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto” (1 Thessalonians 3:2-3).
In addition to suffering persecution, the Thessalonian church was being exposed to false teaching. Jews and Gentiles alike were impugning Paul’s character and his ministry saying he was a charlatan, deceitful, and double-minded (1 Thessalonians 2:1-16). There are more than a few sections in 1 and 2 Thessalonians that reveal false teachers strongly opposed Paul and his teachings. Paul’s response to this assault on “the word of God” was to issue the following commands: “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
One of the more significant truths the false teachers attacked concerned the end of the age: “Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
Evidently, the Thessalonians thought the persecution they were suffering was directly related to the Tribulation, i.e., “the day of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). If this was the case, it meant the Rapture had already occurred and they were left behind. You might then understand why these folks were “shaken in mind” (alarmed) and some if not all were “troubled” (unsettled). Paul aimed to right this wrong by setting the record straight: “Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2; 3:17).
We cannot be sure of everything the false teachers proclaimed, but it’s rather obvious Paul’s antagonists opposed his teaching about the Rapture (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Think this through. What was the nation of Israel looking forward to? Answer: the arrival of their King and the kingdom, in accordance with God’s Prophetic Program; that’s what they believed, so that’s what they taught. Paul, on the other hand, taught the Lord Jesus Christ will gather His Church unto Him in the clouds and we will be forever with Him in glory (1 Corinthians 15:50-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10). This is not the Second Coming of Jesus; that is not a church event for it occurs at the end of the age or the Tribulation period and the Church will not experience it. Even today people of all denominations are eagerly anticipating the Lord’s Second Coming believing it to be a time of milk and honey, peace and tranquility, and the like, when actually it will be a time of great travail, few will survive it (Jeremiah 30:7; Matthew 24; 1 Thessalonians 5:3).
The Believer’s Sanctification
Now that we have seen how persecution and false teaching had come to the Thessalonian Believers we should look at the negative ways in which these problems affected this assembly. I’m going to let Paul have the floor, so to speak, because he explained this so well in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12: “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no go beyond and defraud his brother in matter: because that the Lord the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit. But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more; And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and ye may have lack of nothing.”
Although a number of significant concerns appear here, I’m going to focus on only two:
discouragement and negligence.
“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: But the desire cometh, a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).
Usually, when saved people believe the Lord Jesus Christ could return at any time, they inevitably become discouraged because life continues as they know it, that is to say, the trials and tribulation continue unabated. These Believers in Thessalonica had oriented their entire lives around the immediate return of Christ. Some had even stopped working thinking, “What’s the point?” Even our apostle Paul believed the Lord would return in his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:15). I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say every Believer since Paul believed the Lord would return in their lifetime, so there’s not one single thing wrong with that for the return of Christ Jesus is our glorious hope (Colossians 1:27; Titus 2:13).
These Believers had suffered and given up much for the sake of Christ. Yet, as the months went by, not only were they disappointed, to make matters worse, a number of Believers had passed away. Those who remained alive worried about the eternal state of the dear departed. This confusion led to doubts and then to discouragement. Here’s how Paul comforted and corrected them: “ But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep (passed away), that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15).
Paul assured the Thessalonians that although the departed saints had died physically, they were merely “asleep” for they were alive with Christ in glory.
In addition to discouragement and confusion, the message of the false prophets had led to irresponsible living. It isn't hard to understand what happened at Thessalonica because irresponsible living is but one definition of paganism. Put yourself in their situation. If you believed that the world would end next month, would that not affect your plans for tomorrow such as going to work, repairing the leaky roof, building relationships, etc.? If you were convinced the Lord Jesus Christ would return in a matter of days, normal activities such as these would no longer seem that important. This is what took place in Thessalonica. The false teachers had convinced some of the Believers they no longer needed to support themselves. Their attitude was, “Why bother with work when the Lord’s coming back in a few days?” This is why in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 Paul commanded them to return to work: “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.”
But here’s the thing, even after Paul commanded them to pay attention to their daily affairs, some of them did not return to their responsibilities. We know this to be true because in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 Paul wrote, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.”
Here we learn false teaching and mistaken belief about the timing of Christ’s return for His Church led the Thessalonians to become inattentive to their responsibilities and this in turn led to other problems. Persecution had opened the door for misconceptions about the immediate return of Christ, and those false beliefs led to practical problems such as discouragement and irresponsibility, i.e., negligence. Paul hoped his letters to the Thessalonian church would help them overcome these difficult problems and right their wayward walk with the Lord.
The Gospel Changes The Believer’s Heart
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians reveal a godly Church. This demonstrates the power of the gospel to change lives from the inside out for the Thessalonians were formerly idolaters (1 Thessalonians 1:9). His words reveal Paul’s great love and concern for these folks. Unlike some of his other writings, we find some correction here but very little which underscores the fact that they not only got Paul’s message they were putting it to work in their lives.
Normally, Paul’s letters include little prophetic content. He was the apostle to the gentiles (Romans 11:3) and prophecy is God’s plan primarily for the nation of Israel. His letters to the Thessalonians were an exception. The doctrinal content of these letters is prophecy (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 3-5) and Paul gave these saints a solid foundation re: things to come. In particular, he revealed the previously unknown doctrine of the Rapture. Remember, most of these converts were gentiles, former idol worshipers (1 Thessalonians 1:9). They knew nothing of Jewish prophecies, much less the previously unknown truth of the Rapture. But a statement of the Lord’s return in the clouds for His Church is found in every chapter of 1 Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19-20, 3:11-13, 4:13-18, 5:9-11) and in two of the three chapters of 2 Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, 2:1-8).
(To be Continued)
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