In what may be Paul’s first letter he begins by describing the wonderful way his Gospel proclamation stimulated many in the city of Thessalonica to respond to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. What becomes clear is the tremendous stir this religious event created throughout the Roman provinces of Macedonia and Achaia. He says their firm loyalty to Jesus in the face of “much pressure” (1 Thess. 1:6) became “an example to all those who believe in Macedonia and Achaia.” Just as the Thessalonian believers “imitated Paul and the Lord” (1:6), so now believers in the surrounding provincial regions imitated the Thessalonians in their “work of faith, labour of love, and perseverance in hope” (1:3).The degree of opposition these believers experienced and endured faithfully seems unusual. So when other Christians heard about it, they too were encouraged in their faith.
What seems to astonish Paul not only is their passionate commitment to Jesus, but also the way news of their strong faith has spread so rapidly and widely. It would seem that Paul is writing this first letter to the Thessalonian Christians a few months after his mission in the city and his hurried exit because of rising hostility (1 Thess. 3:1-5). If this is the correct reconstruction of events, then the stories of the Thessalonian Christians’ remarkable endurance in the face of persecution must have spread very quickly – in a matter of weeks! How did this happen? Were some of these Christians forced to leave the city and seek refuge elsewhere, thereby sharing their stories with other groups of believers? Paul gives us no hint as to the means and even he seems surprised by it all.
As well, this information reached clusters of believers in two adjacent Roman provinces – Macedonia (of which Thessalonica was the capital) and Achaia, where the cities of Athens and Corinth were located. Presumably it was the network of believers in Philippi, Berea, Athens and Corinth who primarily are the recipients of this news. At these cities are the “Messianic assemblies” that we know Paul had established in these provinces up to that point. Paul goes so far as to say “in every place your faith in God has gone out”. Paul uses a perfect form of the verb “gone out” which emphasizes that this remains the current state of affairs.
Paul chooses to describe the spread of their faithful response as “from you the word of the Lord has rung out (exēchetai)” (1:8).1 Again Paul uses a perfect tense form, stressing perhaps the continued impact of their testimony – it continues to ring out. We get a sense of what Paul was saying by comparing this text to Luke’s statement about the exorcism by Jesus in Capernaum (4:37), that “the noise/news (ēchos) about him was going out into every place in the surrounding area”.
Philo describes the shout of a large crowd in a stadium as “ringing out (exēchei)” (Flaccus 39). In rehearsing the events at Sinai Philo says that “from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there rang forth (exēchei)…a voice [God’s voice]” (Decalogue 46) such that all Israel heard, saw and was amazed. He can also describe thunder as creating “terrible claps that make themselves heard (exēchosin)” (Abraham 160). These examples suggest the range of meaning that this verb has when applied to auditory phenomena. There seems to be an intensity of noise associated with this verb. If this is its usual semantic sense, then Paul’s use of this verb suggests that the Thessalonian’s testimony reached significant decibel level, figuratively speaking. It made a continuing impression.
The other unusual element in Paul’s wording here is that this news about the Thessalonian converts is “the word of the Lord”. This expression only occurs one other time in his letters (2 Thessalonians 3:1) with reference to the work of evangelism, “that the word of the Lord might run and be honoured”. Of course, in the Old Testament this phrase frequently describes the message God sends to and through His prophets. Luke uses it commonly in Acts to describe the message of divine salvation associated with the Lord Jesus (8:25 Peter proclaims the word of the Lord in Samaria; 12:24 the word of the Lord increases despite Herod’s opposition; 13:44, 48 the population of Pisidia gathers to hear the word of the Lord proclaimed by Paul; 19:10 through Paul’s efforts in Ephesus the whole province of Asia heard the word of the Lord).
The courage and endurance of these new Thessalonian believers in their confrontation with great persecution enabled the message of divine salvation to ring out clearly within their region. The Gospel rang true as they obeyed God, abandoning their idols. There were not just “noisy (ēxōn) gongs or clanging cymbals” (1 Corinthians 13:1), but they demonstrated in their daily lives the faith, hope and love that constitute the essence of Kingdom living.
- 1. This is the only place in the New Testament where this compound verb occurs.