Giving a testimony is a common practice among Christians today to describe what Jesus Christ means personally to them. To give a testimony of salvation, a person tries to answer three key questions: What was your life like before Christ saved you? How did He save you? What has your life been like since He saved you?
We could think of 1 Thessalonians 1 as the Thessalonian church’s testimony, according to Paul. Last month, we looked at the account of their conversion in Acts 17. In his first letter to this young church, Paul encourages, instructs, and even corrects the Christians as they grew in knowing God’s will for their lives. The purpose of Chapter 1 in particular is to encourage the young Christians by recounting how Paul saw God working in their lives. Let’s look at what this chapter says about their lives before, during, and after their conversion.
What were the Thessalonians like before their conversion? They were idolaters (1 Thessalonians 1:9), which means that they were regularly involved in worshiping false gods. From this fact, we can assume that they were mainly Gentiles, since Jews would have refused to worship idols even before they were Christians. This fact alone is evidence of God’s grace in bringing people together. A former Pharisee was telling former idolaters how thankful he was for God’s work in their lives.
How did they become Christians? Paul mentions a couple of aspects of their conversion. First, they heard the gospel, but they heard the message in such a way that the message came upon them with power, with the Holy Spirit, and deep assurance or conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:5). This could mean either that the Holy Spirit worked miracles through Paul as he proclaimed the gospel, or simply that the change in their lives as they heard was so obvious that the Holy Spirit must have been working. Second, they relinquished their old life of idolatry and turned to the true and living God (1:9). A definite and visible change in their lifestyle took place, even to the point that they were joyful in the midst of a distressing situation (1:6).
Third, what were they like after their conversion? Although this church was new, the marks of God’s grace were so evident that they were an example to other churches (1:8). Paul thanks God for three character traits that the Thessalonians exhibited: faith, love, and hope (1:3). Faith is one’s initial and continued trust in God, and this virtue, as Paul writes, results in work or visible activity. Love is a commitment to the wellbeing of others (and our devotion to God); this commitment results in labor, which, in the Greek, often carries the idea of fatigue or even exhaustion. In Scripture, hope is not a wish but the confident expectation of the grace God will grant in the future through the second coming of Jesus. Hope results in steadfastness or endurance. Paul refers to hope again in verse 10. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus leads to the expectation that He will return in judgment, but believers have no reason to fear this judgment because God, through Christ, has forgiven them.
Although first-century Thessalonica is far different than 21st-century South Carolina, the same God still works. He still saves people from idolatry today when His messengers are faithful in sharing the gospel. The same Spirit still works to bring assurance. Faith, love, and hope are just as evident through work, labor, and steadfastness as they were in the first century.