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Introduction to 1 Thessalonians

INTRODUCTION TO

1 THESSALONIANS

Paul spent a very short time in the city of Thessalonica, but he was able to establish a church during his stay. He may have had little time to instruct the new converts, so it is not surprising that Paul wrote a letter to address some questions.

View of the harbor at Thessalonica, probably before the fire of 1917

View of the harbor at Thessalonica, probably before the fire of 1917

CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING

AUTHOR: No serious objections have been made to dispute that Paul was the author of 1 Thessalonians (1:1). The greeting also mentions Silvanus and Timothy. Sometimes Paul wrote from the team perspective, but he was the primary author (2:18; 3:2).

BACKGROUND: About AD 50 the missionary team led by Paul and Silas (“Silvanus”) left Philippi and traveled westward on the Roman road known as the Via Egnatia. They proceeded toward Thessalonica—the strategic capital city of the Roman Province of Macedonia.

Thessalonica was a large port city on the Aegean Sea in modern-day Greece, with a population of about two hundred thousand. The city was filled with pagan worshipers of idols, the full pantheon of Greek and Roman gods, and was well known for its emperor worship. Thessalonica was loyal to Caesar, who had granted its citizens many privileges.

As was his custom, Paul found the local Jewish synagogue and started teaching there. For three Sabbaths he reasoned with the Jews from the Scriptures. He explained and demonstrated that the promised Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. After explaining the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he then stated boldly, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah” (Ac 17:3). Some of the Jews were persuaded, along with some of the devout Greeks who were worshipers at the synagogue, and some of the prominent women. They joined Paul and Silas, and the church in Thessalonica was born.

There were Jews in the city who were not persuaded, and they became jealous of what Paul and Silas had done. They incited the people into an uproar and attacked Jason’s house where the missionary team had been staying. Wanting to drag Paul and Silas out before the crowd, they found only Jason and some new believers. They dragged these out before the city authorities. The rulers, not wanting more unrest, forced Jason and the rest of the brothers to make a financial payment of security to ensure that there would not be a repeat of such a disturbance. That very night the Thessalonian believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea, where they could continue their ministry (Ac 17:1-9).

From Berea Paul went to Athens. He wanted to see the Thessalonians again. When he could endure the separation no longer, he sent Timothy to encourage the Thessalonian believers (1Th 3:2). Timothy came back with an encouraging report about the Thessalonian church (3:6). Paul wrote to them from Corinth in response to Timothy’s report. Based on the archaeological evidence of a dated inscription mentioning Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, by name (Ac 18:12) and correlating this with Paul’s visit to Corinth when Gallio was there, 1 Thessalonians can be reliably dated at AD 50 or 51. This would make 1 Thessalonians the earliest of Paul’s letters with the probable exception of the book of Galatians.

MESSAGE AND PURPOSE

Timothy reported to Paul that although the church at Thessalonica was suffering affliction, they were holding fast to the faith. And though they had some doctrinal misunderstandings, they were laboring for the Lord out of love and patiently hoping for the return of Christ. Paul wrote to encourage the church in their faith, to remind them that sanctification was God’s will for them, and to correct misunderstandings about end-time events. First Thessalonians presents four major themes.

PAUL’S CONDUCT OF HIS MINISTRY: Paul’s ministry focused on two aspects—the impartation of the word of God and the sharing of his life (2:8). The gospel did not come in word only, but in power and deed as well. Paul’s motives were to please God (2:4; 4:1) and to express his concern for the Thessalonians’ welfare (2:8). His message didn’t come in error, uncleanness, and deceit but in purity and truth (2:3,10). Also, Paul didn’t use his ministry as a cloak for covetousness (2:5). This was demonstrated by his working to provide for his material needs (2:9).

PERSECUTION: The Thessalonian church was founded in the midst of persecution. Paul had to leave the city for that reason, and the church continued after he left (1:6; 2:14-15). Paul encouraged the believers there not to be shaken by these afflictions because Christians are certain to suffer (3:3-4).

SANCTIFICATION: Salvation isn’t finished once a person believes in Christ and receives forgiveness of sins. Paul’s prayer for the believers at Thessalonica in 3:13 was that God would establish their hearts blameless in holiness before God. He pointed out that God’s will for them was to abstain from sexual immorality and to love one another (4:1-12). Paul used his example of work to encourage them in their own work so they would not be unnecessarily dependent on anyone (4:10-12; 5:14).

THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST: Jesus’s return is mentioned in every chapter of 1 Thessalonians. Specific attitudes, events, and encouragements about the “day of the Lord” are given with the assurance that Christians are not appointed to God’s wrath (5:9).

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE

First Thessalonians contributes to our understanding of the second coming of Christ. Paul wrote to correct some misunderstandings of this doctrine, and in the process he showed us that Christ’s return gives us true hope. First Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians (chap. 15) are the only books that explicitly mention that Christians who are alive at Christ’s return will be changed and will meet Christ in the air without dying.

STRUCTURE

First Thessalonians follows the standard form for a first-century letter: greeting (1:1), thanksgiving (1:2-4), body (1:5-5:22), and farewell (5:23-28). The body of the letter does not follow Paul’s typical structure of presenting doctrine first, followed by practical exhortation based on that doctrine. Instead, 1 Thessalonians moves back and forth between the doctrinal and the practical.

OUTLINE

I.Greeting (1:1)

II.Commendation for the Thessalonians (1:2-10)

A.Their work in the gospel (1:2-4)

B.Their reception of the gospel (1:5-10)

III.Conduct in Ministry (2:1-16)

A.The missionaries’ visit and example (2:1-12)

B.Mixed responses to God’s message (2:13-16)

IV.Concern for the Thessalonians (2:17-3:13)

V.Call to Sanctification (4:1-12)

A.Abstain from sexual immorality (4:1-8)

B.Practice brotherly love (4:9-12)

VI.Christ’s Second Coming (4:13-5:11)

A.The rapture of the saints (4:13-18)

B.The day of the Lord (5:1-11)

V.Concluding Exhortations and Blessings (5:12-28)

2300-150 BC

Prehistoric settlement on the site of Thessalonica 2300

Founding of Therme at the head of the Thermaic Gulf 600

Cassander, king of Macedon, establishes Thessalonica at the site where Therme had existed, naming the new city in honor of his wife. 316

The Romans gain control of Thessalonica when Perseus, king of Macedonia, is defeated at Pydna. 168

First Jewish community in Thessalonica—emigrants from Alexandria 168-103

149-42 BC

Construction of the Macedonian leg of the Egnatian Way, a Roman military road connecting Thessalonica with the Adriatic Sea in the west and with Neapolis in the east 147-120

Thessalonica becomes the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and is referred to as “the Mother of Macedonia.” 146

The Roman statesman Cicero spends six months of his self-imposed exile in Thessalonica. 58

Many Roman officials flee Rome and take up residence in Thessalonica during the Roman civil war. 49-48

Augustus declares Thessalonica a free city following the battle of Philippi. 42

AD 33-44

Tiberius Caesar takes away Thessalonica’s status as a free city when her citizens protest increased taxation. 15

Jesus’s trials, death, and resurrection Nisan 14-16 or April 3-5, 33

Pentecost 33

Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road October 34

Claudius Caesar restores Thessalonica’s status as a free city. 44

AD 47-53

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark make their first missionary journey. 47-49

Paul and Silas begin their second missionary journey. 49

Paul, Silas, and Timothy preach in Thessalonica. 50

Paul writes 1 Thessalonians several months after his ministry among the Thessalonians. 51

Paul concludes his second missionary journey and arrives in Antioch of Syria. 52

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