The occasion of the writing of 1 Thessalonians was the coming of Timothy, who Paul sent to the city when he could “stand it no more” (1 Thessalonians 3:1,5), that is, not knowing if their faith had truly taken hold. The Apostle’s stay in Thessalonica (modern day Thessaloniki) was relatively brief, at least three weeks, but likely much more, with Paul and his party (Silas) settling into a trade there to make ends meet, so as to not be a burden to his hosts. Nonetheless, he was concerned that he did not finish the job, having to be escorted out of the city in the dead of night (Acts 17:10).
His young partner delivered good news though, that they had indeed already suffered as Paul did, having been opposed by the same kind of detractors when they in turn passed Paul’s gospel along, causing him to say, “You also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen.” 1 Thessalonians 2:14.
In Thessalonica, Paul and his associates taught their message in a hostile environment, on the heels of being beaten and jailed in Philippi. Paul was not a glutton for punishment, but a faithful servant honoring his calling from the Most High (Acts 9:15) despite the cost, for he was emboldened and approved by God, entrusted with the gospel, and therefore, spoke the truth with authority. But fierce opposition and physical persecution was to be his lot: “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Acts 9:16
But Paul did not shout his message on the street corners. First, he “reasoned” with the Jews in the synagogue for three straight weeks, but he was forced into a less visible ministry in the household of Jason (Acts 17:5) as the Jews rose up against him. There he imparted God’s word to new converts as parents would to their children (e.g. as a nursing mother, as an encouraging, exhorting, imploring father). Nevertheless, he and his people had become notorious. “These men who have upset the world have come here also.” (Acts 17:6)
It is worth saying, as time goes by, and much more quickly these days, the opposition Paul faced we will face in our lives. Settling down to reason with someone over coffee may not be possible. Paul tells us in his second letter to Timothy:
But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NAS)
We have witnessed recently in a very real way what opposition looks like. It’s aggressive and intimidating, it’s in your face, leaving no room for civilized discourse. It’s good to know that the spoken gospel of Jesus Christ will be enough to exclaim in these situations, and will discharge our responsibility. Remember, Paul says, to “avoid such men as these.” So even Paul knows you’ll not be successful in “engaging in a conversation.” You see, no amount of logic will cause these “revilers” to change their minds. We need to become convinced that in God’s message we have the opportunity to deliver powerful words that will take on a life of their own. So at least shout back the good news before you walk away.
Please note this. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 says, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” This gospel is so powerful on its own that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). A dramatic reversal. So blown away at the Thessalonians’ response with so little runway was Paul, under so much opposition, he said this:
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 men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NAS)
The lesson in this letter is that the message and messengers of Jesus Christ will always be opposed, sooner or later. Paul was doggedly pursued throughout his ministry, but he persevered. It is also apparent the gospel is resilient and transforming, and it speaks for itself.
It may very well be that in the difficult days ahead, all we’ll be able to get in edgewise will be, “Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.” This is what I heard a believing police officer tell a protester who relentlessly harangued him from the street corner. As he walked away he shouted back, “Read the Bible, read the Bible, read the Bible.”