First Epistle to the Thessalonians

THESSALONIANS, FIRST EPISTLE

Background.


The account of Acts (17:2) may indicate that Paul worked in Thessalonica three to four weeks, although some scholars maintain that this period of “three sabbaths” was a reference only to his ministry in the synagogue, and thus they predicate a longer overall ministry in the city, perhaps as much as six months.

The church grew swiftly both numerically and spiritually. In fact, so gratifying had been their progress that Paul describes them as exemplary for the saints in Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7f.) But the work of Paul and his companion had not been easy in Thessalonica. The Jews had stirred up the rabble of the city against Paul and Silas, so that they had to flee by night to Berea (Acts 17:5ff.).

The Bereans welcomed the message and made diligent study of the Scriptures to see whether what Paul proclaimed was true. But even as the apostle was enjoying success, the Jews at Thessalonica, hearing about the results, came to Berea in order to stir up a riot against God’s servants. The result was that, while Silas and Timothy were left behind in Berea to give support to the infant church, Paul himself was sent away to the coast (17:14). Those who escorted him brought him as far as Athens (17:15). Paul requested Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible (17:15).

While awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy, Paul continued to proclaim the message of the Gospel (17:16-34). From 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 2 we learn that Timothy had left Berea and had joined Paul in Athens. It is probable (though not certain) that Silas had also joined Paul at Athens. One thing is clear, the apostle was deeply concerned about the state of the recently founded church in Thessalonica. Twice he had made plans to revisit them, but twice Satan prevented him from realizing this desire (1 Thess 2:17). Thus, with his concern ever intensifying, he decided to be left at Athens alone, sending Timothy to strengthen and encourage the saints at Thessalonica (3:1-3).

Upon receiving the word of Timothy concerning the Thessalonians Paul wrote to them (3:6). It would seem that by that time he had prob. traveled from Athens to Corinth where he had begun to preach in the synagogue until finally Silas and Timothy should meet him again (Acts 18:1-5).

Authorship.

Pauline authorship is not contested by many scholars today. In the past, however, certain of the Tübingen and Dutch schools regarded the epistle as unauthentic for the following reasons: (1) It is supposedly too untheological in content. But, it may be asked, why must all the apostle’s writings have been equally doctrinal in character? Varying circumstances require varying epistolary emphasis. Actually 1 Thessalonians is far from being doctrinally insignificant; it provides much needed information on the doctrine of last things (eschatology). (2) It fails to attack legalism—justification by the works of the law. But, it may be asked, was Paul a man of only one idea? It should be remembered that the situation in Thessalonica was not the same as that in Galatia. (3) It is claimed by some to be too dependent upon 1 and 2 Corinthians and therefore the work of a forger. But, this argument is the very reverse of argument (1) above. There 1 Thessalonians was rejected as authentic for not being Pauline enough; here it is rejected for being too Pauline! These arguments obviously cancel each other out. (4) It is supposedly contradictory to certain information in Acts (cf. 1 Thess 2:7ff. with Acts 17:2; 1 Thess 1:9; 2:14 with Acts 17:4; 1 Thess 3:1f. with Acts 18:5). Careful attention to these variations reveal no real contradiction of information. Such divergences simply prove that Luke and Paul wrote independently of each other. We need both to give the complete story.


Date.

It is generally agreed by scholars that this epistle was written in the early fifties (c. 50-51). If this is correct, 1 Thessalonians would be the oldest preserved Pauline epistle, although some date Galatians earlier.

Place of origin.

It was written shortly after Timothy came to Athens, or in Corinth; the latter is more commonly held.

Destination.

Thessalonica, the modern Salonica, was founded about 315 b.c. by Cassander, who named it in honor of his wife, the half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was the largest and most important city in Macedonia and was also the capital of the province. It was situated on the most famous of Rom. military roads, the Egnatian Way, which connected Rome with the E. It was a seaport and a center of trade and commerce; a city ideally suited to Paul’s missionary strategy.

Occasion.

Paul received his inducement to write 1 Thessalonians from the reports which Timothy brought him from Thessalonica (Acts 18:5; 1 Thess 3:6). Some have suggested that this first epistle was in part a reply to a letter which the church had sent to Paul. It is argued that 4:9 and 5:1 might indicate this as a possibility, since similar phraseology is used elsewhere by Paul to denote written replies made concerning specific inquiries (cf. 1 Cor 5:9, 11). Although such is possible, it must not be overlooked that whereas 1 Corinthians mentions a letter, 1 Thessalonians does not. It would seem that Paul would have clearly mentioned a previous communication if, indeed, he had received one.

Purpose.


Special problems.

The first of these problems include the idea put forth by Harnack, and later by Lake, that the church at Thessalonica was divided into two sections meeting separately, a Jewish and Gentile church. It is then argued that 1 Thessalonians was written to the Gentile church and 2 Thessalonians to the Jewish church.

The arguments employed to establish this view are as follows: (1) It would seem that Gentiles were the recipients of the first epistle (cf. 1:9; 2:14) whereas Jews were the recipients of the second, as is seen by virtue of a much stronger Jewish flavor; the language is said to be couched in OT terms. (2) The phrase, “God chose you as a first fruit” (ἀπαρχὴν) instead of “from the beginning” (ἀπ̓ ἀρχη̂ς). It is clear that the Thessalonians were not Paul’s first converts, nor were they the first converts in Macedonia, but the Jews were the first converts in Thessalonica. It is maintained therefore, that the term ἀπαρχὴν might better be seen to apply to the Jews as over against the Gentiles. (3) It is held that something significant along this line must be seen in the “all” of 1 Thessalonians 5:26ff. Paul emphasizes that “all” are to be greeted and that the letter is read to “all.”

This evidence is far from convincing. Taking the arguments in order, it may be stated: (1) The supposed Jewish coloring is not at all impressive. There are no quotations from the OT in the second epistle and even if there were this would in no way demand a Jewish destination. Paul cited the OT most frequently in his epistle to the Romans, but this letter was most certainly addressed to a predominantly Gentile congregation. (2) As for the argument based on a variant reading of the text, a variant rejected by most editors, such is at least precarious. (3) Finally the non-emphatic “all” in 5:26ff. is perfectly capable of being explained otherwise. Paul simply desired that his greetings might embrace everyone, the loafers, the weak and any others with whom he might have had some reason to be disappointed.

Two additional and rather decisive factors militate against this divided church theory. First, such a view is in strong contradiction to the Pauline doctrine of the unity of the church (cf. 1 Cor 1:11ff.). Second, we have no clear historical evidence of such a divided church.

A second problem is that of co-authorship. Both epistles indicate that the senders are “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy” (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1). Further, throughout the letters “we” rather than “I” is used, with only a few exceptions. Some have suggested that either Silas or Timothy was largely responsible for one or both of the epistles, with Silas usually being preferred. It would seem best however, simply to take the inclusion of the names of Silas and Timothy as a sign of courtesy toward his associates in the work of the ministry. They certainly would have endorsed what he wrote.

A third problem concerns the order of these two epistles. Some would maintain that they should be reversed. In this way many problems supposedly receive a solution which otherwise are difficult to resolve. The following arguments are urged in support of this thesis: (1) 2 Thessalonians speaks of the church as experiencing severe trials and difficulties whereas 1 Thessalonians speaks of these as past. (2) While certain difficulties within the church are mentioned in 2 Thessalonians as though the writer had just been informed of them, in 1 Thessalonians they are mentioned as though familiar to everyone, suggesting therefore a later stage. (3) The statement in 1 Thessalonians that they have no need to be instructed regarding “the times and the seasons” makes good sense if they had already received 2 Thessalonians. (4) The fact that Paul emphasizes his signature in 2 Thessalonians 3:17 but not at the end of the first epistle would tend to argue for a reversal of the letters. (5) Certain members of the Thessalonian church had died when the first epistle was penned. This would be more likely if we have a longer period. (6) It is reasonable to suppose that the shorter epistle would have been written first with the longer following as a later elaboration.

In response to these arguments, it may be noted that far from the trials of the first epistle being over, it would be better to see them as yet in the future. Paul would then be seen in this first epistle as encouraging these believers with respect to those persecutions which yet lay ahead. The expression “we hear that some of you are living in idleness” (2 Thess 3:11) could just as easily be understood as following what is stated in 1 Thessalonians as be taken as preceding it. It certainly is not necessary to see 2 Thessalonians 2 as providing the background for the statement concerning “the times and the seasons” in the first epistle. His prior oral communications to the Thessalonians concerning the parousia would have been sufficient explanation for this statement regarding “the times and the seasons.” A perfectly good explanation is given in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 for his autograph in that epistle. As for the argument based on the shortness of the second epistle, all that one can assert is that such reasoning is extremely unconvincing. There is no good reason why a first epistle should necessarily be shorter than a second.


Content.

Having received information from Timothy concerning the state of the Thessalonian congregation, Paul writes expressing his thanks for their spiritual health as seen in their steadfastness under persecution. He vindicates his ministry among them as against the charges of his enemies. He instructs them concerning the status of their departed loved ones at the time of the Rapture. He exhorts them concerning their responsibilities in light of the future day of the Lord, warning them to avoid immorality and encouraging them to pursue righteousness. This epistle centers on the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ. Outline:

Theology.

The Thessalonian epistles are the least dogmatic of all the Pauline epistles. That which makes Pauline theology distinctive is largely absent from these two epistles. There is no mention of the matter of the contrasts between law and grace; the term justification is not used at all; grace, a favorite watchword of Paul, occurs only twice (2 Thess 1:12; 12:16). This lack of extensive Pauline theological argumentation is most reasonably accounted for by the nature of the circumstances in which these epistles arose.


Second, as respects the doctrine of Christ, the apostle so unites the Son with the Father as to indicate clearly His essential equality with the Father (1 Thess 1:1). Christ is described as ὁ Κύριος, and this title was the common term for God among the Jews of the time.

Third, as respects the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the apostle teaches that it is the Spirit who makes the message effective in the hearts of hearers (1 Thess 1:5). It is the Spirit who gives joy in affliction (1 Thess 1:6). It is the Spirit who gives those charismatic gifts which the Thessalonians were tending to despise (1 Thess 1:19f.). God gives the Holy Spirit to all believers (1 Thess 4:7f.), therefore they must be careful not to fall into uncleanness.

Fourth, as respects the doctrine of salvation, the apostle mentions the great doctrine of redemption through the death of Christ only once and that in a very general way (1 Thess 5:10), but it should be remembered that this central truth had already been fully proclaimed and accepted by the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:13). Paul takes for granted their knowledge of this elsewhere in his epistle (1 Thess 1:10; 4:14). The great doctrine of union with Christ is clearly implied in the description of the “Church of the Thessalonians (which is)...in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:1).


Bibliography

See listing following article on 2 Thessalonians.