The church exists on two planes: Physically, it is located at a specific place and time. Spiritually, however, it is located in God, who is eternal and whose saving purposes for humanity cross the boundaries of geography and chronology. Paul took note of these two planes in 1 Thessalonians 1b: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We often read this address line of Paul’s letter as throwaway verbiage, a mere convention of first-century letter-writing. Letters are from somebody to somebody else, so why pay attention when Paul names his readers? Why? Because Paul doesn’t waste words and transforms epistolary conventions into opportunities for theologizing
Here the theologizing is overt and instructive.
First, with regard to its geography and chronology, the church is “of the Thessalonians.” In the late 40s, when Paul wrote this letter, Thessalonica was a Greek-speaking, free city of the Roman Empire. It was a port city, located in the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, and a hub on the Via Egnatia, the 700-mile land route connecting Roman cities from the Adriatic to the Bosphorous. Proud, powerful, and prosperous—that was the Thessalonica of Paul’s day.
It was also a dangerous place for Christians. Acts 17:1–9 records Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s founding of the church. As was their custom, these missionaries first evangelized the synagogue. Verse 4 indicates that they were successful: “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” Unfortunately, verse 5 notes, “other Jews were jealous,” and they launched a mob action against the missionaries. This mob went before the city officials and charged the missionaries and their converts with treason: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (verse 7). Such treason in a Roman town could not be tolerated. The Thessalonian believers rushed the missionaries out of town (17:10), but they themselves endured suffering (1 Thes. 3:2–4). The city was proud, powerful, and prosperous, but the Christians were persecuted.
But, second, the physical location of the Thessalonian church must be seen in light of its spiritual location. That church existed—and every church exists—“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s God is not just any god. He is “Father.” Here we see God in his role as Creator of the Cosmos, First Person of the Trinity, and Adoptive Father of humankind. He is a powerful God, but good too—a loving Father, in fact. And then we see Jesus, the Son of God, who really is a “king,” but whose crown has been woven from the thorns of intense suffering.
In all ages, the church finds itself located amidst the world’s pride, power, prosperity, and persecution. But we must keep both its temptations and trials in perspective. For Thessalonica is but a temporary address—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. God, however, is our permanent home.