The epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians are forceful evidence that Paul was no mere armchair theologian. This servant of Jesus Christ had experienced harsh treatment at the hands of both misguided Gentiles and hostile Jews for the sake of Jesus ( 2 Cor 11:23-27 ; 1 Thess 2:2 ; cf. Acts 14:4-5 Acts 14:19 ). This committed preacher of the gospel was called a god at Lystra, raised a dead man at Troas, and created riots in many places, including Thessalonica ( Acts 14:12 ; 20:10-12 ; 17:5-9 ). While some might unfortunately be tempted to view this great apostle to the Gentiles as an authoritarian personality because of some statements in letters he wrote to the Galatians and Corinthians, readers are encouraged to gain a sense of the other side of Paul by studying the Thessalonian correspondence.
Place in the Canon. Hidden near the end of the Pauline corpus are these two precious letters that provide important insight into the mind and heart of Paul. Students of the Bible should be aware that the present order of the New Testament books is not according to their date of writing but according to more theological principles of organization. In the case of the Pauline Epistles, early Christian collators of the New Testament began with Romans heading the corpus as a kind of summation concerning soteriology or salvation. It was followed by 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians, which dealt with inadequate responses to the meaning of salvation. These texts in turn were followed by Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, which have generally been regarded as the Prison Epistles and which treat various implications of Christology for the life of the church. Sandwiched between these seven letters and those addressed to persons (1-2 Timothy and Philemon) are the Thessalonian epistles.
Almost overlooked, these little letters deal primarily with how eschatological (endtime) issues affect the church. These letters are significant because they may be the earliest preserved documents of the New Testament, having been written shortly after a.d. 50. Their significance, however, has often been lost because the major concern of many Christian theologians has been issues of soteriology (salvation) and because some other interpreters have sought to use these letters along with Daniel and Revelation to build schemes for predicting the end of time. But a careful reading of these letters will provide a greater spectrum, including insights into how the apostle sought to deal with the crucial issues of early community life on the basis of believers' transformation in Christ.
Historical and Literary Issues. These epistles have been the subject of considerable recent scholarly discussion involving a wide variety of issues, such as authorship, order, style, and theological consistency. While some have argued strongly against Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians based on matters of style and tone, such arguments when fully reviewed are more speculative than might be apparent at first glance. On the issue of the order of the Thessalonian letters, the case is not as easily settled since an argument can be made both ways concerning the matter of hostility that seems to be in the past for 1 Thessalonians (e.g., 1:6 ; 2:14-16 ; 3:2-5 ), but a current reality in 2 Thessalonians ( 1:4-8 ). Probably there is insufficient information in the letters themselves to determine the case, although the allusion in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 may be to 1 Thessalonians ( 2 Thess 2:2 ; may suggest some fraudulent correspondence arriving between the two legitimate letters ).
Concerning any major theological inconsistencies that have been suggested by comparing the two letters, it seems best treated in terms of Paul's reaction or response to eschatological questions raised or perceived in the community. Moreover, suggestions that one or both of these letters were directed against powerful outside forces such as gnostics or Judiazers can hardly be gleaned from these epistles. Such ideas are constructs from outside the letters themselves.
The Setting. First Thessalonians was undoubtedly written from Achaia (probably Corinth) following Paul's hasty departure from Thessalonica and Berea (cf. Acts 17:1-18:1 ). Paul was relieved by the good report brought by Timothy concerning the situation at Thessalonica ( 1 Thess 3:6 ), and this letter is both a response to their concerns and a general exhortation to authentic living. Together with 1 Corinthians it provides a unique study in contrast. In 1 Corinthians 16:5-12 one has the feeling that none of the missionaries are anxious to go to Corinth whereas Macedonia is quite another matter ( 1 Cor 16:5 ). The same positive view of the Thessalonians is present when one reads that their faith is recognized not only in Macedonia but in Achaia and elsewhere ( 1 Thess 1:7-8 ). It is a contest of two cities, both capitals of their respective provinces! Little can be added from 2 Thessalonians except to note that Paul recognized that the community was experiencing hostility from without (1:4-8). The presence of such hostile treatment is confirmed even at the early stage of the Christian mission ( Acts 17:5-13 ). Pain, loss, and suffering are often the seed beds for birthing significant theological reflections and such is clearly the case with Paul's letters to Thessalonica.
Themes of the Letters. Paul's letters provide intriguing studies in the thematic concerns. Such is certainly the case with these Thessalonian epistles.
Paul's Triadic Emphases. Those familiar with the famous faith, hope, and love triad of 1 Corinthians 13 may not realize that Paul frequently employs triadic thinking in his writing or that this famous triad is employed to identify a theological emphasis. The concluding member of the triad provides a signal for the emphasis being made in the work. In the case of 1 Corinthians the theological emphasis falls on authentic living, the second aspect of the salvation triad (justification, sanctification, glorification). The same emphasis on authentic living is present in Romans 5-8, where the discussion is introduced with a similar order ( Romans 5:1 Romans 5:2 Romans 5:5 ). In 1 Thessalonians, however, where the concern is eschatology or hope and endtimes, the order is faith, love, and hope ( 1:3 ). The same emphasis is evident in the triad of "turned, " "serve, " and "wait" ( 1:9-10 ).
Hope in this Life. Yet such an emphasis does not mean that Paul is unconcerned with sanctification (see 1 Thess 3:12-13 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 1 Thessalonians 4:7 ; 5:23 ; 2 Thess 1:10 ; 2:13 ). Because God in Christ has brought a new sense of hope to the world, Paul is able to view the pain and suffering experienced in this world from the ultimate perspective of the resurrection and glorification of Christians ( 1 Thess 4:14-17 ; 2 Thess 1:10 ) together with the judgment of evil ( 1 Thess 5:2-3 ; 2 Thess 1:6-9 ).
In the light of this ultimate reality, Paul calls on his readers to exemplify in their lives the way of holiness ( 1 Thess 4:3-7 ; 5:23 ; 2 Thess 3:13-14 ) and the marks of love, faithfulness, peace, courage, purity, patience, and diligence ( 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 1 Thessalonians 4:9-11 ; 5:6-22 ; 2 Thess 3:6-13 ).
Imitation. But Paul's exhortations are not meant to be understood as mere words of advice. Having grown up in a multicultural context, he had learned that authentic teaching was rooted in the authentic living of the teacher, whether that teacher was a Jewish rabbi in Jerusalem or a stoic philosopher in Tarsus. Accordingly, Paul employs the technical concept of imitation to challenge his readers to follow or copy his way of life as a significant model ( 1 Thess 1:6-7 ; 2:14 ; 2 Thess 3:7-9 ; cf. Php 3:17 ). But he clearly recognizes that he is not the ultimate model. He himself is copying the model of Christ, and his readers are to copy that model of Christ as well ( 1 Thess 2:14-16 ; cf. Php 2:1-18 ).
Paul's imitation of Christ meant a personal involvement in the lives of his understudies. Thus, in 1 Thessalonians he exemplifies his role by reference to both female (mother, 2:7 ), and male (father, 2:11 ) descriptions of his relationship with them. But perhaps the most important description of Paul's relationship with his followers is found in the word-family of parakalein/paraklesis [parakalevw/paravklhsi"] ("comfort, " "support, " etc.), which describes a personal concern for another's well-being, a theme that becomes a personification of the Spirit's role with believers in John (see parakletos [paravklhto"] in John 14:16 John 14:26 ; 15:26 ; 16:7 ; cf. also the role of Jesus 1 John 2:1 ; and by implication "another" in John 14:16 ). In Thessalonians Paul is in fact assuming the role of an earthly paraclete to the church, his model being that of Christ and the Spirit. So strategic is this idea in 1 Thessalonians that some scholars have pondered whether in principle the entire epistle should be categorized as a "Letter of Consolation."
Hope in the Hereafter. But the theological force in these letters concerns the future expectations of the Thessalonians. Their driving question seems to have been the timing of the Lord's parousia [parousiva] ("coming" or "presence" see 1 Thess 2:19 ; 3:13 ; 4:15 ; 5:23 ; 2 Thessalonians 2:1 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9 ). Christians were dying, just like non-Christians! Funerals were necessary. Where was their hope for a future life with Jesus?
Paul's answer was clear. Death does not end hope because death is not a Christian's final state ( 1 Thess 4:13 ). The answer, as Cullmann has so helpfully articulated, is not some vague Greek immortality theory where the soul takes wings and is absorbed into the divine soul in the manner suggested by Plato. The answer is that the dead will rise (v. 16)! All Christians will thus join in the meeting with Jesus. Those who are still alive will be removed or lifted up from the context of this earth and all will be together with their Lord forever (v. 17).
The concept of removal is defined here in spatial terminology as "snatched away" or "caught up" (harpazein, 1 Thess 4:17 ). The Latin equivalent, rapere, has given birth to English theories of "rapture." Dispensationalist interpreters of the past century sought to program this motif of Thessalonians into their understanding of Revelation. But since there was no precise literal equivalent of the idea in Revelation, they inserted it between chapters 3 and 4 of that book. Whatever view one takes of a rapture, it is important to recognize that Paul's intended purpose here is the comforting of believers in the midst of loss ( 4:18 ) with the fact that both dead and living Christians will be safe with Jesus forever.
This text has also given rise to questions concerning the state of the dead between their death and resurrection. Some have proposed theories of "soul sleep." Two matters, however, should be clarified briefly at this point. First, the concept of an immortal "soul" is a Greek idea, which in the theory has been imported into the Christian theology of the resurrection. Second, the concept of "sleep" implies that a person is subject to the element of time when dead. Neither idea is necessarily compatible with Paul's thinking elsewhere or with his use of figurative language here.
The point of his argument is to assure the Thessalonians not to worry about the dead. They are secure in God's hand. But Paul does use the sleep idea here to call them from a lack of involvement to authentic life while they are still alive on earth (cf. 1 Thess 5:6 ). And they are not to be surprised by events as they take place because timing is also in God's hand (5:1-4). Yet a timetable is not here provided to readers. Only the warning is given to be prepared for the "descent" of the Lord at a time to be signaled by God (described as the trumpet call, 4:16 ; and coming unexpectedly as at night or at pregnancy reaching term, 5:2-3 ).
But such nonprecise expectation theology was apparently not satisfying to some in the church and so Paul in 2 Thessalonians had to remind them not to accept unsubstantiated reports or even a fraudulent letter (today a book?) concerning God's timing for his coming (parousia [parousiva] 2:2 ). The time had not yet arrived; the signs or conditions were not there! They should not be duped by deluded proclaimers of timing (v. 11). The world would still get worse until evil seemed to be utterly rampant and someone (a man of lawlessness and destruction) would seem to gain complete control and impersonate God (symbolized in the picture of control of the temple, v. 4). They should never forget that God is always in control, restraining evil from exploding (v. 6) until the time he has determined to end the work of Satan (vv. 8-10).
Paul's concern in both epistles then is not in programming the coming of the Lord but in assuring Christians of their ultimate relationship with God and that God is in control of history, not the forces of evil and persecution.
In these early epistles there is little attempt to theologize about Christology or the Trinity. It is merely assumed that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are ultimately one ( 1 Thess 1:2-5 ; 2 Thess 2:13-16 ); that the one God is in fact working in Christ Jesus ( 1 Thess 2:13-14 ; 5:18 ); that the death and resurrection of Jesus are fundamental elements of Christian faith and the basis for Christian hope and authentic Christian living ( 1 Thess 1:10 ; 2:14-16 ; 4:14 ).
The spread of the gospel for Paul was directly linked to the authenticity of Christians ( 1 Thess 1:8 ; 2:13-16 ; 4:11 ; 5:12-22 ; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 ). His joy in their examples of Christian integrity is clear ( 1 Thess 1:6-7 ) and his concern for their well-being is evident in his calling of judgment on their persecutors ( 1 Thess 1:5-10 ). Because of his commitment to integrity as the basis for the evangelization of the world, he strongly and repeatedly counseled his followers to persevere in all matters of integrity and goodness and to abstain from all forms of evil and idleness ( 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6 1 Thessalonians 2:9-11 ; 1 Thessalonians 3:4-5 1 Thessalonians 3:10 1 Thessalonians 3:13 ; 4:1-12 ; 5:12-23 ; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4 2 Thessalonians 1:11 ; 2:13-15 ; 2 Thessalonians 3:3-5 2 Thessalonians 3:9-10 2 Thessalonians 3:12-14 ). In this concern for them his advice and prayers are beautifully united in a spirit of genuine care for their well-being in Christ.
Gerald L. Borchert
Bibliography. J. M. Bassler, Pauline Theology; G. L. Borchert, Discovering Thessalonians; F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians; J. Chapa, NTS40 (1994): 150-60; O. Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection from the Dead; R. Jewett, The Thessalonians Correspondence: Pauline Rhetoric and Millenarian Piety; A. J. Malherbe, Paul and the Thessalonians: The Philosophical Tradition of Pastoral Care; I. H. Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians; L. Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians; W. Schmithals, Paul and the Gnostics; C. A. Wanamaker, 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Thessalonians, First and Second, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".