N THE SUMMER OF 2000 I BEGAN A journey exploring the life of Paul as I prepared to lead a group of pastors and their wives in tracing the footsteps of the intrepid apostle through Greece, Turkey, and Syria.
As both tour organizer and tour guide, I wanted to make sure the group would come to experience my love for the biblical world. I wanted them to understand the relationship between the physical setting of the places Paul visited and the letters he wrote to the churches located in those places. Our three-week, dusty road tour passed quickly as we visited some of the most fascinating archaeological ruins of the past (places such as Ephesus and Corinth) and some of the greatest cities of the present (Athens, Damascus, etc.).
For years I’d been using a slide lecture series on popular archeology and travel as an entry event to my public series on Revelation. But during this trip, after videotaping me teaching at Tarsus, my youth pastor, Danny Chan, said, “You don’t have to use slides in your evangelism anymore; you can make movies!”
Sure! I thought, dismissing the idea as youthful naiveté.
When we returned to the U.S., however, Danny made a two-minute demo movie of me teaching at Tarsus that captured my imagination. Soon I began writing scripts for a 13-part series on the life of Paul that ultimately grew to the twenty 30-minute episodes that have been airing on the Hope Channel and 3ABN since February of 2004.
One of my great joys in researching and taping this series was that of linking Paul’s travels with his writings. I was surprised by some of the relationships as we drove from province to province and city to city, tracing his footsteps. Here are some of the insights that developed during my own journey—insights about Paul’s understanding of, and relationship to, the blessed hope; to life and death; and to the Sabbath. The insights emerged as we taped in Thessalonica and Corinth, and revolve around Paul’s ministry in Corinth and what prompted the writing of his first letter to the Thessalonians.
When Paul, Silas, and Timothy journeyed from Philippi to Thessalonica, they had great success while teaching in the synagogue in the Macedonian capital. “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4). This success was quickly followed by persecution, however, from jealous or zealous Jews who initiated a riot in the city.
Paul and Silas, escaping from Thessalonica during the night, traveled 50 miles inland to Berea, where they taught in the synagogue and encountered a very different reception. According to the record, “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11, 12).
Paul and his companions must have been thrilled by this wonderful response.
It’s amazing to think about the willingness of the Bereans to entertain the radical concepts Paul was teaching. The popular idea in their synagogue (and all of the synagogues in Macedonia and throughout the world) was that the Messiah would come to liberate Jerusalem from the hated Roman occupiers. But Paul came teaching that the Messiah had indeed come to Jerusalem, was executed by the Roman occupiers, but then had come back to life.
The Bereans listened, however, with an open mind, weighed the evidence from Scripture, and then believed. But as soon as the mischief-makers from Thessalonica heard what was happening in Berea, they journeyed there to agitate the crowds against Paul. Immediately, some of the believers escorted him to the coast and then took him to Athens. Timothy later joined him for a short time in Athens before being sent back to encourage the young church they’d planted in Thessalonica (see 1 Thess. 3:1-3).
Sorrowful and Confused
Paul moved on to the great metropolis of Corinth, later to be joined by Silas and Timothy, who had come down from Macedonia (Acts 18:5) with a thrilling report from the church of Thessalonica from Timothy. The church in that city was growing; and in spite of persecution, the believers were standing firm in their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Notwithstanding their stance against persecution, however, many of these young believers were distressed. Apparently, some of their number had died, leaving them sorrowful and confused. What were the implications of the deaths of these loved ones? they wondered. Having died before the coming of Jesus, would they perish? Would their loved ones ever see them again? Was their death the final end?
These Thessalonian believers found themselves sorrowful and confused. And in response to this report about them from Timothy, Paul took out his pen and wrote what many scholars consider to be the first book of the New Testament. “Brothers,” he said to these grieving members, “we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). “We believe that Jesus died and rose again,” he continued, “and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the arch- angel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words” (verses 14-18).
Paul’s precious words about the blessed hope of Jesus’ defeat of death and His certain return to resurrect those who have died believing in Him have brought hope and comfort to millions of people through the ages. His words are probably the most often quoted words at funerals.
But think for a moment of the circumstances that prompted him to write them. It was because someone
perhaps several) had died in a church he’d planted in Thessalonica, a church that was just as real as the one you attend today. The believers in Thessalonica were confused. Did this mean they would never see their loved ones again?
To Meet a Practical Need
While it’s important to know the signs of the times and the differences between the pretribulation, midtribulation, and posttribulation theories of Jesus’ coming, I find it most comforting when I remember why Paul first wrote that passage in 1 Thessalonians on the second coming of Jesus. It was to encourage a grieving church.
And when I realized that this book may have been the first of the New Testament books to be written, it elevated the blessed hope in my thinking to a new level. Indeed, in light of this fact, one could almost say that the comforting message of this hope is what prompted the writing of large sections of the New Testament. Paul admonished believers to “encourage each other with these words” (verse 18).
And countless believers through the centuries have found that Paul’s message of hope tempers the pain of loss experienced when a loved one dies, and brings strength and courage as we relate to death.
In my video series on Paul, I had the privilege of tracing his footsteps for thousands of miles. Ultimately, his walk with Jesus took him to a place outside Rome where, according to tradition, he willingly laid down his life.
Today, that place is marked by the Monastery of the Three Fountains, a complex built on a swampy area outside Rome where citizens were executed in the first century. The monastery was meant to commemorate the apostle’s martyrdom. As I walked down the lovely tree-lined lane to the chapel, I thought of Paul’s final earthly footsteps as he followed his Lord. For more than 13,000 miles he’d faithfully followed wherever Jesus had led; and now, finally, his Lord led him here!
What might have been his last words to his friends? We do not have that. But we do have his last letter, containing a passage that summarizes his life.
Way to End!
Paul’s last letter is generally believed to have been written to his dear friend and son in the gospel, Timothy. That (second) letter to Timothy was not written while Paul was under house arrest, as in the case of the other prison epistles. No, circumstances had dramatically changed. Now he was in the Mamertine Prison awaiting certain execution. Sensing the sands of time running out, he encouraged Timothy to “get here before winter” (2 Tim. 4:21).
In spite of the ugly shadows, however, the apostle is buoyant in his faith, encouraging Timothy to be faithful to the Lord as a pastor and an evangelist. Then he shares his personal ringing testimony:
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
The blessed hope was the theme of Paul’s ministry from his first letter to his last. This brought hope and encouragement to a grieving church in Thessalonica that had lost some of its members in death. It brought hope and encouragement to a tired apostle facing execution. And it will bring hope and encouragement to you and me as we face the uncertainties of life in the twenty-first century.
Tony Moore has been a pastor for more than 25 years. In 2003 he founded The Biblical World, a ministry dedicated to uplifting Jesus as Messiah by bringing the world of the Bible to life. He lives in Chino Hills, California.