(1 Thess. 1:4-5 ESV) 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
Does it bother you when you stumble across a seeming Calvinist verse? I mean, what does “chosen you” mean if it doesn’t mean unconditionally elected by God for salvation before the Creation? It just sounds so Calvin!
But that’s because our 21st Century minds have been trained to think in these terms, even when we disagree. We see much of Christianity as a giant debate between the Calvinist and the “free will” or Arminian positions. And so we endlessly debate that 16th Century question. But Paul was no 16th Century writer. Nor was he a fan of Augustine, on whose speculations many of Calvin’s arguments are based. The trick to a correct understanding, therefore, is to think like Paul — a First Century Jewish rabbi, who studied at the feet of Gamaliel.
And to a First Century rabbi, “chosen” recalls the fact that Israel is God’s chosen (ekloge = elect) people.
In the OT God chooses Abraham (Neh 9:7) and his offspring, the people of Israel, after him (Deut 4:37; 1 Kings 3:8; Isa 41:8, 9; 43:10; 44:1, 2; 45:4; 49:7), in order to make himself known through them to the rest of humankind.
F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word BC 45; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 13.
In other words, Paul is saying that the Thessalonian congregation has been chosen/elected by God in much the same sense that God chose/elected Israel.
Now, what did it mean for God to say the Israel has been “chosen” or “elected” by him? Did it promise that they would remain saved until they die (perseverance of the saints)? Hardly. Many Jews were ultimately rejected by God, so much so that he eventually allowed Babylon to destroy his Temple in Jerusalem and to take his people into captivity and Exile.
Rather, God’s covenant was with the nation, and it only guaranteed that a remnant would be saved.
(Rom. 9:27-28 ESV) 27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”
(Rom. 11:2-5 ESV) 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Paul’s point is not “Your salvation is absolutely certain.” Rather, he’s saying, “You’ve been included in Israel, God’s covenant people, who’ve been chosen by God.”
Paul adds that they should feel assured of God’s election because the gospel was preached to them not only in word but “in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction [or great fullness].”
But the word found here (plērophoria) can also signify “complete fullness,” in this case the fullness of the divine work, and this appears to be the sense in the present verse. In this context the focus is on the divine operation in the apostolic preaching (“power . . . Holy Spirit”) and not on the conviction of the missionaries nor on the way the Thessalonians received the message (cf. 2.13). The proclamation of the gospel came “with miraculous power, with the Holy Spirit and with great fullness.” The Thessalonians heard the message of God and saw his power in the apostolic proclamation.
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 96.
(1 Thess. 1:6-7 ESV) 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
The Thessalonians received the gospel (the word) “with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” The result of hearing and believing the word should be joy. I never will understand why we so insist on making baptisms into serious, formal affairs in which everyone is afraid to smile. It should be a celebration — even if the convert suffers “much affliction” is deciding to follow Jesus.
In the church where I grew up, we could sing “O Happy Day!” at a pace and with an attitude that better befit a funeral — imagining that God was thrilled that we took everything oh so seriously!
Now, notice that Paul offers himself (and Timothy and Silas) as an appropriate example to follow for how to live the Christian life. In fact, his logic is: because you imitated us so well, so you have now become an example for others to follow.
This is not vainglory or hubris. It’s Paul being honest. He may be human and hence imperfect, but he is nonetheless a good example for others to follow — and one of the great mistakes we make as a Christian community is we fail to offer young converts an example to follow. We hand them a gold-leaved Bible and tell them to follow Jesus — as well they should — but we offer them no one in the church that actually does this. And so we have no coaching or mentoring relationships. We expect people to figure it out on their own as though no one else in church has gotten close enough to be an example. And that is very sad.
(1 Thess. 1:8-10 ESV) 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Imagine! Paul says that the faith of this congregation has become so well known that Paul no longer has to “say anything,” that is, preach the gospel. The gospel is preached by the great example of this congregation!
Paul then summarizes the gospel:
- Leave idols and serve the Living and True God.
- Wait for the return of Jesus, the Son, from heaven.
- God raised Jesus from the dead — the resurrection is true!
- Jesus will deliver his followers from the wrath to come.
It’s not complicated.