Turning from Idols to Serve the True God (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

What was the social setting of the church at Thessalonica?  John Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (Paul and His Letters. 185). But this is problematic because Acts tells us the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy, presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations. First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.” Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.” Second, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church. This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, Paul does not quote from the Old Testament in 1 Thessalonians implying a primarily Gentile church which would not be expected to resonate with biblical quotations or subtle allusions to the Hebrew Bible.

If the church is primarily Gentile, where did they come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely they could be described as having turned from idols. In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person. The fact the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians. Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report in the book of Acts.

Roman Coin, the goddess Roma

I think the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church. If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life. Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically, imperial Roman cult. See this post on the charges against Paul, he was “turning the world upside down.”

Peter Oakes makes a similar point.  He says “Christian failure to honour the gods would have included central Roman deities such as Jupiter, but also the deified Caesars” (p. 309).  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at least an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

Was there an Imperial Cult center at Thessalonica? Oakes observes that no remains of an imperial cult site have been found at Thessalonica because very little of ancient Thessalonica has been excavated. But the city was a provincial capital and the presence of an imperial cult can be seen in early coinage that called Caesar God (p. 308). Even if there was no cult temple, the city of Thessalonica was thoroughly Roman.

In Acts 17, Luke reported the charges against Paul as “preaching another king besides Caesar.” If the church continued preaching Paul’s gospel, then the Gentile converts would have certainly found themselves in a difficult political and social position.

Bibliography: Peter Oakes, “Remapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” JSNT 27 (2005): 301-22.

15 thoughts on “Turning from Idols to Serve the True God (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

  1. Polhill points to the reasons why the Thessalonian church would have been primarily Gentiles (Polhill, 185). By turning from idols, they were not just converting to Christianity, they were leaving behind what it meant to be a pagan Gentile. Idol worship was incorporated in a majority of areas in their lives. Pagan religion and worship was a part of their definition of who they were so turning from those things meant a need for a new sense of belonging and identity (Polhill, 185). Today, when someone in America becomes a Christian, there is a definite need for reshaping one’s life and abstaining from sins that were “okay” before being in Christ, like going to the bar every night to get drunk. For the Thessalonians, however; there was much more at stake. There was the risk of persecution from turning away from idols; imperial cult included. As stated in the blog post, this put Gentiles in a difficult social and political position. Paul’s letter is addressing the issues they are facing in an encouraging way, using family language to create a sense of belonging that they needed (Polhill, 185).

    • I Greatly appreciated the effort and time that you put into this post. You can tell that your vivid explanations and ideas were well thought out. One concept that you expressed that resonated within my mind was that of encouragement. That sense of encouraging one another in Christ is vital to how we live as fellow Christians. It it important to look out for each other as our walk in faith may become hard or road blocks start to present themselves on our path. Just being able to have someone there to help you keep going and help you be better is pivotal to spiritual growth (Proverbs 27:17). That sense of encouragment is what Paul was doing with these individuals in Thessalonica. Being able to help them to realize that they are not in this spiritual walk alone is significant in their walk in Christ. However, in terms of the after affect it is pivotal for us as followers of Christ to stay focus and not to become weary. Although without encouragement that task to be able to stay focus becomes hard. Just like in modern day perspective the idea of encouraging others is highly regarded. Because when you encourage others it tends to bring the best out of them and provides that element to push forward. We also see this aspect of encouragement from God. We see that He intervenes within our lives by putting these individuals therer to encourage us to keep moving forward with our faith in Him.

  2. I think the key rests upon the qualifications that distinguish Gentiles and Jews/“God-fearers.” Because Paul does single out those who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” it is likely that he was pointing out the Gentiles. However, Acts 17:4 does mention those who were swayed by Paul’s teaching were “devout Greeks.” Wouldn’t that point to Gentile “God-fearers?” Not to mention that a later verse in Acts 17:17 (Paul’s visit to Athens), says he reasoned with “the Jews and the DEVOUT persons” which could arguably be translated to Gentile proselytes. Do these two verses hold any link or association?

    The only way that I can see this passage connecting to the Gentile crowd is if it was upheld by persistent elocution that it was certainly Gentile. Although Polhill is persuaded that the Church of Thessalonica was predominantly Gentile due to the arguments made by Paul’s assiduous stress on sexual purity, “turned to God from idols,” and the church’s socially mixed members, it still lacks the explanation to the premise of Acts 17:4.

  3. Polhill argues the composition of the Thessalonian church as primarily Gentile as indicated by Paul’s preaching in I Thess. 1:9 where he urges them to turn away from idols (185). This is an indicator that the congregation was primarily Gentile because Jews were monotheistic. It seems a converted or God-fearing Gentile would still struggle with the culturally appropriate aspect of idols which the Roman Empire was renowned. The stress that Paul places upon the topic of sexual purity also seems congruent with a strong Gentile presence in the church. Paul seems to be battling with the Roman culture that would not have been as difficult for Jews to abstain from because Jews already segregated themselves from outside cultures except to what was necessary for business and survival. Therefore, it seems likely that the idols and sexual impurity to which Paul is addressing in his letter would be targeted at Gentiles who were struggling with what it meant to leave the old self behind and pursue a life in the manner to which they had been called.

    • I also think it could have been that they were worshiping the baal, gods holidays like most people still do today. Like Christmas, new year, Halloween, St. Patrick day. These were pagan holidays brought into Christian worship by the Catholics .Christ was by most accounts born in the fall because the shepherds were in the field. December 25th was a pagan holiday, worshiping Nimrud-tazmud . Easter is worship for his wife-mother. Halloween was when they offered the babies for a burnt offering. This could be what Paul was warning the about because they were going back to baal worship.

      • Not baal, that is an Old Testament Caananite god; but you are right about attraction to the gods of Rome, the festivals and other civic forms of worship were very difficult to avoid (and rather popular and fun!) Even attending a sporting event or theater performance would involve evoking a god of some kind.

  4. We go to a bible college with two different cultures and they are far from the same. On one side you have the home school/ pastor kid/ missionary kids, and on the other side you have the “normal” people who went to a public or christian school and some of us who are newer to the faith and didnt grow up in it. This culture shock is not new to the church as we see in the new testament you have Jews God’s people/ God fearing gentiles, and you have everything else with idols all over the place. I draw this parallel because we today have just as many idols if not more than the culture time of Paul. The main difference between now and then is idols are now the ones who help dictate all our culture down to how we worship. The idols of old to the unknown God and many others were on every street corner, like a modern day star bucks. The things faced in this are still prevalent and relevant so the words of Paul are still as relevant today as they were then.

  5. Polhill states “Thessalonian church seems to have been primarily Gentiles in competition,” (Polhill 185). So when Paul preached to the Thessalonian church he was aiming to the Gentiles to have them turn away from the idols that they would worship. It is like in today’s world when someone will go downtown and talk to the gay community, and try to convert them Christianity. It would be hard for them to leave their lifestyle that they have been living in, and turn to God. It was like that back then for the Gentiles and how they were worshiping idols. Now Paul comes around and converts them to God, and now they ditch everything that they have been doing and turn to God.

  6. Throughout this blog post there was pivotal information that we come to examine concerning the ideas and concepts of Pagan religion. In terms of Pagan religion, it is touched on immensely in the book of Thessalonians. The great writer of John Pollhill provides some arguments for the church in Thessalonica being primarily Gentile (Pollhill, 185). The Gentiles were groomed in more of a pagan realm before Paul came. One of the most incorporated acts of religion in the pagan community is that of worshipping idols. However, fast forwarding to the alteration of their lives from more of a Pagan religion to more of a Christian outlook they are turning away from those idols. By turning from idols, they were not just converting over to the religion of Christianity but more so leaving behind what it meant to be a pagan Gentile. As the aspect of idol whorship was immensely incorporated within numerous aspects of their lives one may see how that could be hard for them. Although, God gives us instruction to turn away from idol worship (1 Corinthians 10:14). That idea of turning away from a life that is not like how God wants us to live is tough in an instance. Being accustomed to doing something creates a norm to do that thing and be used to it. These individuals were used to living that life and weren’t used to living as God wanted them to live. For example, if you are used to going out and robbing or stealing from the homes of other people to make money. Then you change your heart to wanting to live like Christ and you must find a job and work every day to make your money. This will be hard because you’re so used to stealing that now you must stay consistent and work every day. That essence of turning away from your old ways and turning to a life more like Christ is what these individuals were going through in Thessalonica. That’s why Paul was there to more so keep these individuals into the realm of Christ with words of encouragement to be steadfast and consistent in turning away from their old ways (2 Thessalonians 3:5).

  7. I heard a sermon a few years back about this passage. The preacher focused on how the Thessalonians were able to stop worshipping the idols by first turning to God. He related this to the sins and struggles we have in our lives and how if we are focusing our attention on the sin, we won’t be able to stop. This hit home for me because I had a struggle that I was trying to break and I never could get rid of it, but I realized that in wanting to stop the sin, I was focusing all of my attention on the sin itself, instead of turning my gaze toward God, since he is the one who is able to break the power of sin, not me. I appreciated the perspective of the preacher and the different way of thinking about sins has helped me in dealing with other aspects of my life as well. Certainly we don’t have the same idols that the Thessalonians had with carved images of ‘gods’, but we may have even more idols to deal with today. Social media, our phones, money, fame, achievements, and the biggest idol: ourselves. Therefore let us turn to God to break the power of these idols in our lives.

  8. This reminds me of Exodus 32, when Moses was delaying on coming back down from the mountain, while the people gathered and went up to Aaron and told him to make them a god to go before them that will take them to the Promised Land. They knew God took them out of Egypt and He revealed himself at Mount Sinai. They were willing to trust a god and finish where He started. Aaron tells them to give him the rings of gold which they did, and he designed using tools and made a golden calf. He tells the people that this is their god. Aaron and the people throw a feast. The Lord tells Moses to go back to his people because they made themselves a molded calf, worshiped it and sacrificed it. In the part of the section of Paul preaching to the Thessalonians, of having them to turn away from the idols that they worship. To this day, they are people that are obsessed with social media, money, celebrities and anything else that is an idol to us but most of all ourselves. My sister is a Christian but she does not go to church because she is scheduled to work on Sundays. There were times that she did not have to work on Sundays, so she went to church. After church she rarely socializes with people and will listen or sing worship songs when she is at church not at home. She is a huge K-pop fan, buys albums, posters which have them all over her wall, watches K-drama, and is always on her phone or tablet. They became idols to her. People needs to turn away from the idols and have God work on them in their lives to seek the truth.

  9. If I was a Jew in the time of Paul I would 100% believe that these new “Christians” were following idols. There were people such as Paul that were taking away my fellow Jews to follow this new God. The thing I believe that was the hardest for Paul when converting these people to Christianity was having them giving up their formal lifestyles. Someone who followed idols had their own customs and the Jews the same. Many people who followed idols had customs that were not acceptable to God such as sleeping with prostitutes and many other things. Those converts would have definitely been in an awful position. Throughout history there have been many rulers who view themselves as gods. An example of this is King Nebuchadnezzar, he made all of his subjects worship him. The Caesars were no exception to this.

  10. Culturally speaking it would be very confusing to be hearing of what Paul was trying to share and whether or not it was actually turning to an idol because it was something that was newer. Any person who is confident in what they believe is going to be hesitant about newer beliefs. In 1 Thessalonians Paul is explaining how to live a life that is honoring to God and how to live a life that is Christ centered in a world that is not. The culture and belief systems that the Jews had set up in the temple made Paul’s preaching of following the true God resistant. The Jews also were jealous of the crowds wanting to hear more about this gracious and loving God that they became jealous. The information that Paul was teaching was also against the Roman deities and culture which is off putting. The political and social turn that Paul introduces to the Genitals was focused on how they were worshiping idols and not the one true God. This viewpoint was not only going against their religion but also what their culture had always believed. Going into a new city and saying that one is living a life that is culturally wrong is very uninviting yet hopeful because what Paul is sharing in 1 Thessalonians is that there is a God who is loving and doesn’t require any sacrifices to be made to make up for one’s mistakes, like some idols need.

  11. There seems to be a lot of similarities between what Paul was facing and what we face daily today. Obviously, the time period is going to be a major difference but today we still see people who turn to idols. All throughout Paul’s ministry we see him going to bring knowledge of the one true God. To the city of Athens for example in the book of Acts. They had built a statue to numerous amounts of gods including one to the unknown god. One of the things that I feel could have been viewed as an idol for those in Thessalonica could have been the sin of sexual immorality which Longenecker discuses heavily. We see it all the time today how people run to their fleshly desires instead of to God and because of that we make it an idol. For the Gentiles then they were literally gods, either statues or “powers” that they looked up to that Paul was on a mission to turn them away from. Paul had to redirect their focus form previous gods and turn it toward the one true God. Looking back and relating the struggles of early Christians to that of Christians today is something that I have not often done, so it is interesting as well as eye opening to draw similarities and learn lessons from those that Paul ministered to.

  12. It is very interesting how Paul was attempting to show God to the Thessalonians and Luke reported that Paul was preaching another king that was not Caesar. It is interesting to see God not being the one true king and that Paul got in trouble because he was promoting the Lord. I think that what happened to Paul shows the corruption of King Caesar and that he was not a righteous king. The one true “king” that everyone should be praising is God and if people were to praise King Caesar and be punished for praising anything else, then the people would be committing one of the worst sins that can be committed. These people are praising a false idol which is a sin. What makes this even worse is that Paul is the “wrong” one according to the king and his subjects. This is something that frustrates God because He does all and is all and the people who praise King Caesar are against God and all he wants is praise from his people. That is why idolatry is a sin because God is a selfish God. He wants all people to praise Him and Him alone. Paul was the only one trying to do the right thing for the kings’ subjects and yet he was punished for this.

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