COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 1:6 And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything." (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 NKJV)
A Kingdom manner that is worthy of our consideration is the due recognition of comely spiritual qualities and advancement. In the flesh, such recognition often promotes pride and a distorted view of oneself. In the Spirit, however, it proves to be a great encouragement. Honesty and thankfulness merge together in this activity. It also requires spiritual insight, and a sense of Kingdom values. When one considers that believers are in a frail house of clay, an alienated world, and subjected to the harassment and attacks of the wicked one, progress in the faith becomes a cause for great thanksgiving and praise. The working of God is evidenced when men are receptive to the Gospel and their faith grows. This is not the result of religious discipline or institutional regimen. Thus Paul, a prince among Apostles, will give due recognition to the marvelous working of God among the Thessalonians. He will also give appropriate honor to the Thessalonians themselves, who had willingly submitted to the Lord and joined in His work. Paul will also acknowledge their progress is widely known among believers.
FOLLOWERS OF US AND OF THE LORD
" 1:6a And you became followers of us and of the Lord . . . " NKJV In the world, a "follower" can be a demeaning description. It generally denotes someone who has no leadership capabilities, and lacks any creative skills. But this is not the way the word is used in Scripture. We will find that the Thessalonians exercised great influence as a result of being "followers"-something that does not occur in the flesh.
A "follower" is someone who imitates another. This refers to the reproduction of qualities found in one person in the person following them. It is not to be confused with "emulation," which is trying to copy someone else in the energy of the flesh, and comes from envy (Gal 5:20). "Following" reflects an intense and lawful desire to participate in the same grace perceived in someone else. It includes a resolve to abandon competing traits found in self, acknowledging the superiority of a higher order of life. The follower is not seeking advantage in this world, but in the world to come. By following, he is being lifted above the course of this world and participating in the life of Christ.
While, in the flesh, people may be followers by nature, that is not the way it is in the Spirit. As with the Thessalonians, those in Christ "BECAME followers." There came a point in time when they took up their cross, denied themselves, and BECAME followers of Jesus. This posture of life involves the subordination of all other relationships, and losing ones own life for Christ's sake. Jesus said it this way, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt 10:37-39). This is not a common message in our day, but it is the word of the King.
Paul says they became followers of "us and of the Lord." The thing that linked Paul with the Lord was the message of the Gospel. The described relationship is much like that of Israel of old: "the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and His servant Moses" (Ex 14:31). It is not as though Paul and Moses had additional qualities to those of the Lord. Rather, to the degree they reflected the mind of the Lord, particularly in their words, the people followed them and the Lord. As with Moses, the Lord was working through Paul and what he preached. When the people believed what he said, and embraced it by faith, they become followers of him and the Lord.
As will be confirmed, the primary trait of this following was the strong faith of the Thessalonians. Becoming followers of Paul and the Lord is, in fact, walking by faith, and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). It is walking in the Spirit, not in the flesh (Gal 5:25). It is being "saved by hope" (Rom 8:24-25). People become "followers" of God's messengers and the Lord Himself, when they embrace the Gospel and begin preparations for the world to come. They do this at all cost, even if it results in persecution and rejection in the world.
In a day when religious recruitment is emphasized, this perspective needs to be embraced with great zeal. Churches are filled with people who are not following people of faith or the Lord Jesus. They are living their lives in practical alienation from God, consumed with a quest for domestic and financial security and happiness. But this is not acceptable to the Lord. Jesus will not receive or teach those who hesitate to take up their cross and follow Him (Lk 14:26,27,33).
When Paul commended the Thessalonians, he was not referring to a sort of supra-elevation of spiritual life. They had not excelled the norm, but had rather embraced it. Actually, there is no such thing as salvation apart from becoming a follower of the Lord and those who are living unto Him and declaring His message. The blessing is being among those who are with the Lord, being led by Him to glory. With us, it is much like Israel en route to the promised land. "We are setting out to the place of which the LORD said, 'I will give it to you'; come with us and we will do you good, for the LORD has promised good concerning Israel . . . So it will be, if you go with us, it will come about that whatever good the LORD does for us, we will do for you" (Num 10:29-32). When Hobab joined them, he became a follower of Moses and of the Lord. In that sense, the Thessalonians had become "followers" with those in a quest of a "better country" (Heb 11:16).
RECEIVING THE WORD IN AFFLICTION AND JOY
" 1:6b . . . having received the Word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit." NKJV In a very real sense, a saving identity with the Lord begins when we "receive the Word" of the Gospel-when we believe and act upon it. Thus we read of those responding to the Gospel on the day of Pentecost, "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). When the whole city of Samaria turned to the Lord, it was described in these words, "Now when the Apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God . . . " (Acts 8:14). The same was said of the household of Cornelius. "And the Apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the Word of God" (Acts 11:1). The noble Bereans were also said to have "received the Word" (Acts 17:11).
Jesus described those who receive the word of God in this manner. "But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" (Matt 13:23). Thus "receiving the Word" involves hearing it with understanding, and producing the spiritual fruit that results from the powerful working of that Word.
Much of what is called evangelism is the result of hard-sell techniques, polished spokesmen, and pleasant religious surroundings. Professional religion puts the emphasis upon technique. The Lord puts it on the message-"the Word." That marvelous message will yield a harvest wherever it is "received." The results will transcend any that can be produced by the wisdom and techniques of men. They will prepare the individual for glory, and summon up the commendation of holy men of God.
IN MUCH AFFLICTION. As soon as the Word was received, the Thessalonians experienced "much tribulation,"NASB "severe suffering,"NIV and "persecution."NRSV Their faith drove a wedge between them and the world, and the world knew it. The word "affliction" is a very strong one meaning "trouble, anguish, burden, oppression, and distress." The word literally means a "pressing together." The idea is of two contrary things being pressed together, thus causing violent friction and disturbance. It would be like two chemicals being mixed that caused eruption, agitation, and even explosion.
Receiving the Word of God produces an unavoidable variance with those who do not receive it. It also causes Satan and his hosts to assert themselves more aggressively than they ever did before, thereby causing "much affliction." This distress is much like a gate that leads to life, for "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Harmony with the world to come produces disharmony with "this present evil world." Note, this is a point of commendation! It is something that confirmed their election of God. In explanation, Jesus said, "because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19).
WITH JOY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. This is the joy produced by the Holy Spirit, and is integral to the Kingdom of God. As it is written, "for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom 14:17). This is not an irrational joy, as is often promoted in our time. Rather, it is a joy that flows from comprehending the marvelous love of God and the glorious hope set before us. This joy makes "much affliction" tolerable, enabling us to bear up under it with resolution and encouragement. Believers cannot become eager and determined to follow the Lord simply out of routine, or because it is a requirement of the Law. This can only be experienced through the "joy of the Holy Spirit." Though we experience tribulation from the world, we receive blessings from the Lord. That is what causes the fountain of joy to spring up.
Isaiah prophesied of the day of salvation when he wrote, "Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Isa 12:3). This confirms that the joy of reference comes from an awareness of the implications of the Gospel. Rejoicing in the Lord comes when the truth of the Gospel is perceived and we are convinced it is for us. That joy causes our afflictions to become "light" and momentary (2 Cor 4:17). They confirm to us that we have been lifted above this world, and are being prepared for the world to come.
EXAMPLES TO ALL WHO BELIEVE
" 1:7 So that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. 8 For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything." NKJV What a word is this: "examples to all." The idea is that all who heard of their faith were stirred up by it, emboldened and encouraged by the report. The communication of their faith had stimulated other believers to follow their example, and press fervently toward the goal. The Thessalonians had become "followers," and therefore themselves became "examples" to be followed by others. Thus, they fulfilled the admonition to be a "pattern of good works" (Tit 2:7).
MACEDONIA and ACHAIA. Both of these areas were in Greece and covered a wide territory. Philippi was in the northern part of Macedonia, and Corinth was in the southern part of Achaia. The area mentioned covered approximately 120,000 square miles. Throughout this vast region, the Thessalonians had become "examples" to all who believed. Even though the churches in Corinth and Philippi were formed before the one in Thessalonica, yet the aggressiveness of the Thessalonians had set the standard for them. Thus, the first became last, and the last first (Matt 19:30). Because of the Thessalonians, every gathering of believers should be encouraged about the impact and possibilities of their faith.
THE WORD SOUNDED FORTH. The Thessalonian church became a sounding board for the word of God. It not only came to them, it also came from them. At this point the very nature of spiritual life is unveiled. Although scarcely known, those who believe become a resource themselves. Jesus said, "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water" NASB (John 7:38). The text goes on to explain, "But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (v 38).
Those so moved by the Spirit are much like young Elihu, who sat and listened to Job's accusers. When he finally spoke, he said, "For I am full of words; The spirit within me compels me. Indeed my belly is like wine that has no vent; It is ready to burst like new wineskins. I will speak, that I may find relief; I must open my lips and answer" (Job 32:18-20). On an even larger scale, the Word had "sounded forth" by the Thessalonians. Like a mighty trumpet blast, the Gospel went out from this body of believers!
But the spreading of the Word from Thessalonica did not stop with Macedonia and Achaia. Not only was it heard in Philippi, Berea, Athens, and Corinth, but also in other parts of the world-"abroad," KJV "in every place," NKJV and "everywhere." NIV We understand that Thessalonica was a trade-city of Macedonia, visited regularly by ships from around the world. Upon leaving Thessalonica, those ancient vessels not only carried various commodities of trade, but the news of the faith of the Thessalonians.
FAITH TOWARD GOD. And what was it that was reported of the Thessalonians? It was their "faith toward God!" I cannot help but observe how unlike our Christian world this is. Today we hear of mega-churches, famous people, etc., but very little of "faith toward God." Their words and deeds testified of their faith, not organization skills or profound external impressions. Their faith was so powerful and effective that it could not be contained where they lived. It was "spread abroad!" Their fame was so extensive, Paul did not need to testify of the Thessalonian's faith. Everywhere, it was well known.
This text is a great encouragement to all who have taken up their cross and are following Christ. An impact can be registered throughout the world because of your faith. The word of God can sound out from us, as well as it did from the Thessalonians. Even from this very assembly, the Word is being sounded forth throughout the country, and even the world. Great encouragement is being brought to other believers because of this. We ourselves have been profited by hearing of the faith of others, and being the recipients of some faithful word from brethren far from us-or even brethren who long ago departed to be with the Lord. It is to our advantage to be more attentive to churches like Thessalonica than to those who peddle religious methods and techniques.