The Church at Thessalonica - A Model Church
A. Naismith, Falkirk
When Paul, Silas and Timothy left Philippe it seems that Luke remained in the "colony", probably to instruct its heavenly citizens and build up the young church (for the "we" section of the narrative in Acts ends with the arrest and imprisonment of Paul and Silas, and is not resumed until Paul's return to Philippi on his third missionary journey). The Lord's servants followed an ancient highway through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica, the great seaport and largest city of Macedonia, covering in their course nearly one hundred miles. This city, growing out of the expansion of a town called Thermi, was founded and beautified in 316 B.C. by Cassander, the brother-in-law and one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Cassander called it after the name of his wife, Alexander's sister. Its splendid harbour and excellent situation made it an important commercial centre. Its trading facilities doubtless attracted Paul's companion Demas when he deserted the apostle in his imprisonment just before Paul's martyrdom, preferring the world's wealth to treasures in heaven.
In Thessalonica there was a Jewish synagogue to which the evangelists repaired, and in which Paul reasoned with the Jews out of the Scriptures, proclaiming and proving that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Though opposition among the Jews of the dispersion increased, Paul found a ready ear for the gospel among the Greeks and the women of the upper classes who attended the synagogue. Those who believed formed the first Christian community in that city, where the Lord's servants were described as "These that have turned the world upside down". Though compelled to leave Thessalonica because of the uproar and the embarrassment to the young believers caused by their presence, Paul lost no time in communicating by writing with the church of the Thessalonians "in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ", and two of his letters have been preserved to us in the New Testament Scriptures. In the first of these he writes, "ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia". From such an exemplary assembly we may learn what a local church ought to be.
Acts 17. 1-5 tells how the church in Thessalonica came into being through the ministry of Paul, Silas and Timothy, who in 1 Thessalonians 1. 9 and 2. 1 refer to the manner of their entrance among them. Since the work of evangelism in that city had met with truculent and persistent Jewish opposition, the church was composed mainly of Grecian converts of whom some doubtless were proselytes and some heathen. The initial experiences of the church are outlined in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians and these are arranged in five groups of three. Three servants of God, Paul, Silas and Timothy who had proclaimed the gospel to them, are associated in a pastoral interest in the welfare of the assembly. Three essential qualities in the presentation of the gospel to them are noted, for it came "in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance", v. 5. The gospel had evoked a threefold response from those who received it, for they received the Word, became imitators of God's servants and were examples to believers in other districts, w. 6-8. A threefold activity resulted from this - the repudiation of idolatry, service yielded to the living and true God, and patient expectation of the Deliverer from coming wrath, the Son of God from heaven, vv. 9, 10. Three vital Christian graces, faith, hope and love, characterized those to whom the letter was addressed.
In the course of his first Epistle, the apostle throws into relief the various aspects and qualities of a model local church. Forty years ago the writer, as a young missionary on his first furlough, recalls the orderly presentation of some of these characteristics by the late Mr. J. B. Watson, and has found them invaluable in ministry among the many local churches in the Godavari Delta, India.
1. This church of the Thessalonians was a Centre for Gospel Testimony, 1. 8. An assembly may become such in at least three ways: by direct evangelism, Acts 4. 31-33; by scattered members disseminating far and wide the good seed of the gospel, Acts 8. 1-5; and, through its missionary personnel labouring for Christ in other parts of the world, Acts 13. 1-4.
2. The local church should likewise be a Nursery for Spiritual Babes v 2. 7-12. Barnabas was a guide and instructor in such a nursery in Syrian Antioch, and Paul in Thessalonica cherished the young converts as a nursing mother would her bairns, worked to support them as a strong brother, and advised and encouraged them as a wise father.
3. Such a local church naturally became a Target for the Devil, 2. 14-16. Satan will do his utmost, by fomenting internal discontent and creating external troubles, to wreck the testimony of such an assembly.
4. Another feature of the true assembly is the Family Atmosphere,with Love Prevailing^. 11-13. Those who compose the local church, like children growing up together in the same home, should manifest mutual love and sympathy. This affectionate interest in each other's welfare was seen in a marked way in the church at Jerusalem when Peter's imprison ment and peril constrained the saints there to urgent, unceasing prayer on his behalf, Acts 12. 1, 5.
5. The local church is also a Sphere for Divine Discipline, 4. 3-8, for the Father disciplines and chastens those whom He loves. The truth that the Lord is an Avenger should never be forgotten in our attitude toward, and our dealings with, our brethren, for the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God, 1 Pet. 4. 17, as exemplified in Acts 5.
6. As the ideal and Scriptural centre for the spiritual education of its members, the local assembly is a School for Character Building and Instruction, 4. 9-13. The phrases - "ye yourselves are taught of God", "study to be quiet", and "I would not have you to be ignorant", all suggest the impartation of knowledge. While not disparaging Bible Colleges, we have sorrowfully to admit that the need for them is a confession of the failure of local assemblies in this respect. Though the word "study" in the exhortation "study to be quiet" means literally "be ambitious to be quiet", the means of attaining this ambition is by spiritual education through the Word of God.
7. In a truly Scriptural church the less robust members will not be neglected, for it will be a Hospital for the Weak and Sickly among the saints, 5. 12-14. First aid can often be rendered by those who are spiritual, Gal. 6. i, and godly elders will emulate the example of the Lord Himself and His servant Paul in their care for the spiritually feeble, receiving those weak in the faith and nursing the sick and feeble saints back to health and vigour.