Question: "What is the history and significance of the church at Thessalonica?"
Answer: Thessalonica was a prominent city in Macedonia (in modern-day Greece) due to its location: it had a seaport on the Aegean Sea and was a principal stop on the Egnatian Way, a major Roman road. Paul and Silas traveled to Thessalonica from Phillipi on Paul’s second missionary journey to preach the news about Jesus. He spent three weeks teaching in the Jewish synagogue, but most of the Thessalonian Jews became indignant and formed a mob to drive the men out of the city. However, “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” (Acts 17:4). That was the beginning of the church at Thessalonica.
In Thessalonica, Paul and Silas stayed with a man named Jason, and when the Thessalonian mob decided to get rid of the missionaries, they rushed Jason’s house and dragged him into the streets. After a hasty consultation with city officials, they made Jason post bond and released him. Meanwhile, the new Thessalonian believers hid Paul and company until dark and then sent them on to Berea, a city about 45 miles to the southwest (Acts 17:10). In Berea, Paul found a much more receptive audience (verses 11 and 12).The Bereans considered Paul’s words and compared them with the Scriptures instead of taking offense and resisting the gospel as the Thessalonians had.
Even though Paul and Silas had left their city, the unbelieving Thessalonian Jews were not satisfied. They followed the missionaries to Berea and tried to stir up the crowd against them there as they had done in their own city (Acts 17:13). The Berean believers smuggled Paul to the coast where he boarded a ship for Athens. Silas and Timothy remained in Berea to teach and strengthen the new church there.
Not long after his initial visit to Thessalonica, Paul was in Corinth, where he wrote two letters that we now call 1 and 2 Thessalonians, addressed to the newfound church in Thessalonica. First Thessalonians is one of the first of Paul’s letters, or epistles, to churches. Despite the hostile environment the new believers experienced in Thessalonica, they were holding fast to the word that was preached to them, and news of their devotion to Christ was becoming well-known throughout Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 1:7–8).
Paul’s stay in Thessalonica had most likely been difficult for him. In his second letter to the church there, Paul mentions that he had to work during his time in that city, in addition to teaching and preaching, in order not to be a burden to his hosts (2 Thessalonians 2:9). Although Paul does not state what kind of work he did, it was most likely tent-making, which was a trade he was experienced in (Acts18:1–3).
Due to the short time he had been able to spend in Thessalonica, Paul was concerned about the church there. He tried to return to them “again and again—but Satan blocked our way” (1 Thessalonians 2:18). So Paul sent Timothy to check on them and encourage them in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5). Paul “was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted [them]” and that his labors among them had “been in vain” (verse 5). But Timothy returned to Paul bearing good news about the thriving church in Thessalonica, and Paul wrote the book of 1 Thessalonians to encourage them and to explain the “day of the Lord” more clearly.
It seems that, later, some people began teaching the Thessalonian church that the Lord had already come and that Judgment Day was upon them (2 Thessalonians 2:1–2). Worse yet, these false teachers were alleging that their message came from Paul. The apostle wrote 2 Thessalonians to allay their fears and teach them more fully about “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” (verse 1). They had not missed the coming of the Lord.
The church at Thessalonica, located as it was in a prominent city of Macedonia, had an ideal opportunity to share the gospel with the whole region. And that’s what they did, as “the Lord’s message rang out” from the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 1:8). Just like the church in Thessalonica, many churches today are planted in areas hostile to the gospel. Paul’s exhortations and encouragement to the Thessalonians are also encouragements for those today who “have longed for His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). Paul’s words to his friends at the church in Thessalonica are timeless promises to us all.