What is the history and significance of the church at Thessalonica?
Thessalonica was a port city in Macedonia, an important harbor off the Aegean Sea for trade for the Romans at the time of the early church. It was filled with paganism from both the Greco-Roman pantheon and from Egyptian gods. There were also many Jews in this area, as we learn that Paul, Timothy, and Silas met with them in the synagogue (Acts 17:1). "Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women" (Acts 17:4).
However, they didn't have an easy time of it there. Some Jews who opposed the gospel stirred up trouble for them, and "were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, 'These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.' And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things" (Acts 17:5–8). Jason essentially paid bail to the city officials and the believers were released.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy left Thessalonica that night, which may have accounted for some of the confusion later on that surfaced and required Paul to write to the church at Thessalonica the first time. First Thessalonians clears up what it means for those Christians who die before Jesus' second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:11). Many first century Christians believed it would be any day and were grieved that their friends and family had died before Jesus returned. Paul assured them that they "may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14). Paul's second letter to the church at Thessalonica has some of the same themes with more details surrounding Jesus' second coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5—2:12).
Paul's letters to the church at Thessalonica also address sexual sin, living a holy life, and idleness (1 Thessalonians 4:1–12; 2 Thessalonians 2:13–17; 3:6–13). No doubt the pagan culture they lived in made it difficult to remain pure in many ways. First Thessalonians 4:1–12 takes on this subject and provides for them and future believers encouragement to remain faithful, not just for ourselves, but also for those around us.
Heavily trafficked port cities are still important today, even with airplanes. The movement, people, and information that flows through them can have a lasting impact on the world, as it did in Thessalonica. It may have been a more difficult place to establish the church but it was part of God's larger plan to continue expanding the good news beyond the Middle East and southern Europe.
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