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Letters to the Thessalonians

THESSALONIANS, LETTERS TO THE. With the possible exception of Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians are the earliest letters surviving from the correspondence of Paul. They were written to the church in Thessalonica, which was founded by Paul on his second journey en route from Philippi to Achaia. His preaching of Jesus as the Messiah aroused such violent controversy in the synagogue at Thessalonica that the opposing Jewish faction brought him before the city magistrates, charging him with fomenting insurrection against Caesar (Acts.17.5-Acts.17.9). Paul’s friends were placed under bond for his good behavior, and to protect their own security, they sent him away from the city. He proceeded to Berea and after a short stay, interrupted by a fanatical group of Jews from Thessalonica, he went on to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy to continue the preaching (Acts.17.10-Acts.17.14). From Athens he sent back instructions that they should join him as quickly as possible (Acts.17.15). According to 1 Thessalonians, they did so, and it is possible that he sent Timothy back again to encourage the Thessalonians while he continued at Athens (1Thess.3.2). In the meantime Paul moved on to Corinth; and there Timothy found him when he returned with the news of the growth of the Thessalonian church (1Thess.3.6; Acts.18.5). The first letter was prompted by Timothy’s report.

I. 1 Thessalonians

A. Authenticity. There can be little doubt of the genuineness of this letter. Ignatius (Ephesians 10) and the Shepherd of Hermas (Visions 3.9.10) both contain passages that may have been taken from it, and it is listed in the canon of Marcion (a.d. 140). Irenaeus (c. 180) quoted it by name (Against Heresies 5.6.1); Tertullian attributed it to “the apostle” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 24); and his contemporary, Clement of Alexandria, ascribed it directly to Paul (Instructor 1.5). As noted above, the autobiographical allusions in 1 Thessalonians correspond well with the data on the life of Paul given in Acts. Furthermore, no forger of the second century would have been likely to stress the imminency of the coming of Christ as Paul did.

B. Date and Place. Paul’s stay both in Thessalonica and in Athens was brief, and he probably arrived in Corinth about a.d. 50. According to the narrative in Acts, Paul had begun his ministry there while working at the tentmaker’s trade with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts.18.1-Acts.18.3). When Silas and Timothy rejoined him after their stay in Macedonia, they brought funds that enabled Paul to stop working and to devote his entire time to evangelism (Acts.18.5; 2Cor.11.9). Shortly afterward the Jewish opposition to Paul’s preaching became so violent that he was forced out of the synagogue. About a year and a half later he was called before the tribunal of Gallio, the Roman proconsul (Acts.18.12). Gallio had taken office only a short time previously, in 51 or 52. The first letter, then, must have been written at Corinth about a year prior to that date, in 50 or 51.

C. Occasion. Timothy brought a report concerning the problems of the church, with which Paul dealt in this letter. Some of his Jewish enemies had attacked his character, putting him under obligation to defend himself (1Thess.2.1-1Thess.2.6, 1Thess.2.10, 1Thess.2.14-1Thess.2.16). A few of the converts were still influenced by the lax morality of the paganism from which they had so recently emerged and in which they had to live (1Thess.4.3-1Thess.4.7). Some of the church members had died, causing the rest to worry whether their departed friends would share in the return of Christ (1Thess.4.13). Still others, anticipating the Second Advent, had given up all regular employment and were idly waiting for the Lord to appear (1Thess.4.9-1Thess.4.12). The letter was intended to encourage the Thessalonians’ growth as Christians and to settle the questions that were troubling them.

D. Outline and Content, 1 Thessalonians

I. The Conversion of the Thessalonians (1:1-10)

II. The Ministry of Paul (2:1-3:13)

A. In Founding the Church (2:1-20)

B. In Concern for the Church (3:1-13)

III. The Problems of the Church (4:1-5:22)

A. Moral Instruction (4:1-12)

B. The Lord’s Coming (4:13-5:11)

C. Ethical Duties (5:12-22)

IV. Conclusion (5:23-28)

First Thessalonians is a friendly, personal letter. The persecution in Thessalonica and the uncertainty concerning the coming of Christ that Paul had preached had disturbed the believers. Paul devoted the first half of his letter to reviewing his relationship with them in order to counteract the attacks of his enemies. The body of teaching in the second half of the letter dealt with sexual immorality by insisting on standards of holiness. The chief doctrinal topic was the second coming of Christ. Paul assured his readers that those who had died would not perish, but that they would be resurrected at the return of Christ. In company with the living believers, who would be translated, all would enter into eternal fellowship with Christ (1Thess.4.13-1Thess.4.18). Since the exact time of the return was not known, they were urged to be watchful, that they might not be taken unaware.

II. 2 Thessalonians

A. Authenticity. The genuineness of 2 Thessalonians has been challenged because of its difference from 1 Thessalonians: the warning of signs preceding the Day of the Lord (2Thess.2.1-2Thess.2.3) in contrast to a sudden and unannounced appearing (1Thess.5.1-1Thess.5.3); the teaching on the “man of sin” (2Thess.2.3-2Thess.2.9), unique in Paul’s letters; and the generally more somber tone of the whole letter have been alleged as reason for rejecting authorship by Paul. None of these is convincing, for the two letters deal with two different aspects of the same general subject, and bear so many resemblances to each other that they are clearly related.

Early evidence for the acceptance of 2 Thessalonians is almost as full as for that of 1 Thessalonians. Shadowy references to it appear in the Didache (16), Ignatius (Romans 10), and possibly Polycarp (Philippians 11). Justin Martyr (a.d. 140) quotes 2 Thessalonians unmistakably in his Dialogue with Trypho (110). Irenaeus (a.d. 170) mentions it definitely as one of the letters of Paul in Against Heresies (3.7.2), as does Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 5.3).

B. Date and Place. The second letter was probably sent from Corinth in a.d. 51, not more than a few months after the first letter. Since Silas and Timothy were still with Paul, it is likely that no great interval elapsed between the writing of the two.

C. Occasion. Evidently the Thessalonian Christians had been disturbed by the arrival of a letter purporting to come from Paul—a letter he had not authorized (2Thess.2.2). Some of them were suffering harsh persecution (2Thess.1.4-2Thess.1.5); others were apprehensive that the Last Day was about to arrive (2Thess.2.2); and there were still a few who were idle and disorderly (2Thess.3.6-2Thess.3.12). The second letter serves to clarify further the problems of the first letter and to confirm the confidence of the readers.

D. Outline and Content, 2 Thessalonians

I. Salutation (1:1-2)

II. Encouragement in Persecution (1:3-12)

III. The Signs of the Day of Christ (2:1-17)

A. Warning of false rumors (2:1-2)

B. The apostasy (2:3)

C. The revelation of the man of sin (2:4-12)

D. The preservation of God’s people (2:13-17)

IV. Spiritual Counsel (3:1-15)

V. Conclusion (3:16-18)

Whereas the first letter heralds the resurrection of the righteous dead and the restoration of the living at the return of Christ, the second letter describes the apostasy preceding the coming of Christ to judgment. Paul stated that the “secret power of lawlessness” was already at work and that its climax would be reached with the removal of the “hinderer” (2Thess.2.6-2Thess.2.7), who has been variously identified with the Holy Spirit, the power of the Roman Empire, and the preaching of Paul himself. With the disappearance of any spiritual restraint, the “man of sin” or “lawlessness” will be revealed, who will (2Thess.2.3-2Thess.2.10) deceive all people and will be energized by the power of Satan himself.

In view of this prospect, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to retain their faith and to improve their conduct. He spoke even more vehemently to those who persisted in idleness (2Thess.3.6-2Thess.3.12), recommending that the Christians withdraw fellowship from them.

Bibliography: L. L. Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (NIC), 1959; E. Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (HNTC), 1972; F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC), 1982; I. H. Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians (NCB), 1983.——MCT