This epistle bears the distinction of being the first in the order of time of the letters written by the Apostle Paul which have been preserved. Indeed it is the earliest of any of the epistolary Books of the New Testament, the beginning of that body of writing to which the churches are so much indebted. It was written at least five or six years before the great doctrinal and ecclesiastical treatises known as the Roman, Galatian, and the Corinthian Letters, and with the Second Letter to the Thessalonians which followed it by only a few months, it shares the distinction of being the only epistles that came into existence before the beginning of Paul's third great Missionary journey. These epistles, so long antedating the others, differ also from them in character. Written only a short time after the church at Thessalonica was founded, and called forth by the trials and needs of a young congregation which he felt it in his heart to visit again, but was prevented, they illustrate the apostolic instruction given to a newly organized church, composed of Gentiles, suffering under the persecution of both Jewish and heathen adversaries. They are fresh in allusion to the experiences of Paul while among them, and reveal his deep solicitude when forced away.
When the apostle, on his third missionary journey, passed into Europe, he first planted a church at Philippi, but after a little season was driven from there by heathen persecution. Then, attended by Silas and Timothy, he went westward along the great Egnatian Way, the Roman road which led through Greece to Macedonia. He did not pause until he reached Thessalonica, nearly a hundred miles westward, the chief city of Macedonia, situated around a noble harbor at the head of the Aegean Sea. Its situation on the great Roman thoroughfare, its position on the extremity of the sea, and the rich country in its rear, had contributed to make it a great commercial city, with a mixed population of Greeks, Romans and Jews, the first being the most numerous. Here, where there was a synagogue, the apostle paused, found employment to meet his frugal wants, and began to preach among his own countrymen. "And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few."
But soon after the unbelieving Jews stirred up an uproar which made it necessary for Paul and Silas to leave, and the brethren sent them away by night. Going from thence to Berea to the southwest, they first labored there, and later the apostolic labors were extended to Athens and to Corinth. Shortly after Paul's departure from Thessalonica, the persecutions which had driven him away turned upon the church ( 1 Thessalonians 2:14 1 Thessalonians 3:3 ), a circumstance that made him yearn to return ( 3:5 ). Twice he resolved to do so but was prevented ( 2:18 ). Finally he sent back Timothy from Athens ( 3:1, 2 ), and when Timothy returned to him at Corinth, to which he had proceeded, the message which he brought was the occasion of this epistle, an epistle full of comfort, instruction and encouragement, but withal, containing also the instruction in righteousness so much needed by a congregation of those so recently heathen and addicted to heathen vices.
It is interesting to know that this church, honored with the first of the apostolic epistles, long continued to enjoy a glorious history. It was afterwards visited by the apostle more than once; and is often mentioned in the history of the church. Though for more than four hundred years under the sway of the Turk, the majority of its population has always continued to profess the religion of Christ. The city is still great and flourishing, in point of commerce the third in the Turkish empire, possessing a population estimated all the way from 75,000 to 100,000. Of these about one-half are Greek Christians, and the remainder nearly equally divided between Mohammedans and Jews. The excellence of the harbor makes it a constant object of eastern diplomacy, and at this time one of the obstacles in the way of settling the "Eastern Question" is to determine what power shall be awarded Thessalonica.
As to the date of the epistle, it can be nearly determined. About A. D. 52, the church here was planted. From thence the apostle went to Berea and Athens. From the latter, probably several months after leaving Thessalonica, he sent Timothy back. Several months more would intervene before Timothy could return at Corinth. It is therefore probable that the letter was written in A. D. 53, perhaps at least a year after the planting of the church. It was not written at Athens, as an unauthorized addition in the Common Version states.