Thessalonica was “the largest and most important city in Macedonia and the capital of the province” 1, so, after receiving his vision of the Macedonian man during his second missions tour, Paul probably intended to go there immediately after arriving in Europe (Acts 16:6-10). Since they landed at Philippi, they decided to minister there for a while (maybe a couple of months) before Paul and Silas were arrested and put into jail. Once released, it seems that they left Luke there to help the infant believers, while the rest of the team kept going. Over a period of only a couple of months, “Some of [the Jews] were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4). This became the foundation of the church in Thessalonica.
Paul wrote this first letter from Corinth about A.D. 51 after he had been run out of both Thessalonica and Berea and had tried to minister in Athens (Acts 17). While ministering in Corinth, about 6-8 months after having left Thessalonica, Paul finally heard from Timothy again, whom Paul had sent back to Thessalonica to check on the physical and spiritual well-being of the believers there. Timothy brought back a good report, and 1 Thessalonians was Paul’s response to the church. It is full of love and encouragement for them, along with some additional teaching and instructions. For being nearly 2,000 years old, this letter contains some incredibly relevant and practical examples of how Christian ministry and fellowship should look even today.
Chapter one contains a brief picture of the power of the gospel at work in a person’s life, moving him from faith to full sanctification. In verse three, Paul used the powerful triad of faith, love, and hope as he celebrated the spiritual growth his friends were displaying. It seems that he reversed the last two from the normal pattern, because the Christian’s “hope” (Jesus’ return) would be a major emphasis in the letter. (He did the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 5:8.) Specifically, he was encouraged to hear of three things: their “work produced by faith… labor prompted by love… endurance inspired by hope” (NIV).
Upon hearing the gospel message, Paul noted that four changes had taken place in the months since he had seen them. First, they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Because Jews would never engage in idolatry 2, this likely points to a predominantly Gentile congregation. Second, they began “to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:10), something that Paul would elaborate on later. Third, they “became imitators of [Paul] and of the Lord…despite great affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). We should note that this is the normal pattern for new believers; they imitate their disciplers as they learn to imitate Jesus himself. Finally, because of their growing obedience, they “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7), with the result that “the message of the Lord has echoed forth not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). It is no wonder that Paul’s mind and heart were put at ease when he heard Timothy’s report (3:6-8; Acts 18:5).