1 Thessalonians 1:2–3 (ESV) We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, he began by expressing his thanks for the Church in very warm and tender terms. Unlike Galatians, where Paul launches immediately into a response to a serious defection from the Gospel, 1 Thessalonians Paul introduced this letter with prayer of thanksgiving praising the church for their continued perseverance in spite of persecution. Paul wrote the letter after he suffered several setbacks, and he may have questioned the success of his work in Thessalonica.
Paul arrived in Thessalonica after a difficult time in Philippi. According to Acts 16 Paul started a church in Philippi, but was arrested after casting a demon out of a girl in the marketplace. Paul and Silas were “severely beaten” and placed in stocks in the Philippian jail. Although God does rescue them from their imprisonment, Paul and Silas are forced to leave the city sooner than they might have liked.
After leaving Philippi, Paul travels to Thessalonica where he spends three consecutive Sabbaths in the synagogue arguing that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 17:1–4). Luke states that there were “some of the Jews” and a “large number of God-Fearing Gentiles” who accepted Paul’s gospel, as well as “quite a few prominent women.” God-Fearing Gentiles refers to Gentiles who were attracted to the monotheism and high moral teaching of Judaism, but had not become full converts yet. These “near-converts” worshiped in the Synagogue and accepted some Jewish practices.
Paul success angered the Jews, who arranged for a mob to start a riot in the city (Acts 17:5-9). Paul was protected by Jason, one of the converts to Christianity. The Christians in Thessalonica secretly take Paul and his companions out of the city. Paul travels to Berea, where he has similar success in the Synagogue in Berea. Because of this, the synagogue at Thessalonica sent people to Berea, forcing Paul to travel to Athens by himself. Silas and Timothy remain in Berea and at some point Timothy goes back to Thessalonica to check up on the new congregation there. (While this is not stated in Acts, 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 indicates that Timothy “has just returned” from Thessalonica and informed Paul of their progress.)
Paul does not win many converts in Athens, and so he moves on to Corinth where he will eventually plant a church with the help of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-5). After Timothy and Silas join him, Paul devotes himself to ministry in the Synagogue, testifying that Jesus is the Messiah. Despite his success, Paul once again faces opposition and physical threats against his life. The Lord comforts Paul and tells him to remain in Corinth since there many who will respond to the gospel in that City.
The letter of 1 Thessalonians was therefore written at a time when Paul may have thought he was not having a great deal of success fulfilling his commission to be a “light to the Gentiles.” He encountered serious opposition everywhere he went and he may not have known if the church he started in Thessalonica continued to develop and grow after he left. It appears from 1 Thessalonians 2 that Paul was being slandered by people in Thessalonica and that the church was being persecuted for continuing to hold Paul’s gospel.
It is only after Timothy arrives and gives his report that Paul writes this letter, thanking God for the success of the Gospel in that city. Paul’s work in Thessalonica was a a success and the church is not just surviving, but thriving despite continued persecution. While things were not perfect in the new Christian community, Paul offers thanksgiving to God for the growth and spiritual development in church.