1. The Birth and Growth of a Church
More books of the New Testament were written by the Apostle Paul than any other New Testament author. He was certainly a man God used in special ways to minister to the church, but it is important to recognize that none of the New Testament writers wrote in a vacuum nor were their writings the product of simple dictation. While they wrote under the inspired guidance of the Holy Spirit, they wrote from the source of their relationship with the Lord Jesus and what God was doing or had done in their hearts and to their thinking, values, goals, sources of trust, and purposes for life. This is also the exact kind of change God wants to bring about in our lives and seeks to do so through these vibrant epistles of the New Testament.
Of course each book has its special purpose, subject matter, and theme as determined by the inspired direction of the Holy Spirit on the human author, but this was always in conjunction with the particular historical and personal circumstances and needs of the recipients. The human authors of Scripture wrote to real people with real problems in real situations in such a way that their writings are still very much applicable with tremendous relevance in our modern world. Man’s problems in ancient times are still man’s problems in modern times, and likewise, the solutions to man’s problems then are the same today.
The Thessalonian epistles were written to the church at Thessalonica. It was a church under persecution, but also a church that had a dynamic testimony and that had grown through the persecution. Significantly, in every chapter of 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle sought to comfort and motivate with the truth of the Lord’s sure return. As we study these books, therefore, we need to grapple with how the return of the Lord for the body of Christ should impact us and how it should not affect us, for as we will see, some had made a wrong application of the Lord’s imminent return.
The City and the People of Thessalonica
Thessalonica was originally named Therma because of the many hot springs in the surrounding area, but in 315 B.C. it was renamed Thessalonica after the half sister of Alexander the Great. It later became known as Salonika and today it is called Thessaloniki. It is one of the few cities that still exists today from New Testament times and has a booming population of 300,000. The city was conquered by Rome in 168 B.C., and was made the capitol of the entire providence of Macedonia. When Paul made his journey to the city, it boasted a population of 200,000 consisting mostly of Greeks though there was a large Roman population with a strong Jewish minority.
Its location also contributed to its importance. It was probably the greatest of the cities along the entire Egnatian Road, a great military highway which connected Rome with the East and which ran through Macedonia and parallel to the Aegean Sea. It had a sheltered harbor which was made into a naval station and equipped with docks by the Romans. Its midway position between the Adriatic and the Hellespont makes it even today a natural outlet for traffic from all points.
This commercial activity had two important results. First, it made Thessalonica a wealthy city. Well-to-do Romans settled there and Jewish merchants were attracted by the commercial advantages of the city (see Acts 17:4). However, the majority of people made their living by manual labor. Macedonian women, though, enjoyed a higher social position and greater privileges than elsewhere in the civilized world. Second, it brought Thessalonica a reputation for evil and licentiousness. The strange mixtures of a seaport city and the rites of the worship of the Cabiri cult caused the Apostle to make a special exhortation for holy living (1 Thess. 4:1-8).
Thessalonica was a free city and enjoyed the autonomy of self-government in all its internal affairs. Although it was the residence of the provincial governor, he exercised no civil authority because the city was ruled by politarchs (cf. Luke’s accurate reporting in Acts 16:6). This political privilege was jealously guarded by the people who were extremely sensitive about anything that might result in imperial disfavor. It was because of this that the charge framed against Paul and his companions was one of treason and this was the most dangerous charge that could have been leveled against them in a city like Thessalonica (Acts 17:7).
Today, “it is an important industrial and commercial city in modern Greece and is second to Athens in population. It served as a important Allied base during World War I. In World War II it was captured by the German army, and the Jewish population of about 60,000 persons was deported and exterminated.”1
The Gospel Comes to Macedonia
From Antioch to Philippi to Thessalonica (Acts 15:36–17:15)
In the book of Acts, Dr. Luke gives the historical background which describe the events that led to the formation of the church in the city of Thessalonica. The missionary team of Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke went to Thessalonica in response to God’s leading and their deep sensitivity to the will of God. In Antioch, Paul chose Silas as his partner for this journey after separating from Barnabas over the problem with John Mark. Shortly after this, when in Lystra, Paul enlisted Timothy (Acts 16:1-3). During their second missionary journey, Paul and Silas revisited and strengthened those churches in the faith they had previously founded during their first missionary work. Having done this, it was their intention to go through the Phrygian and Galatian regions, but being forbidden to do so, they then attempted to carry the Word to Bithinia, but again the Lord had other plans. Consequently, they passed by the town of Mysia and went down to Troas. There in a vision Paul received the call to carry the gospel into Macedonia, one of the regions of Europe (Acts 17:6-10). Immediately Paul, Silas, Timothy, and now also Luke who had joined them at Troas, firmly concluded God had called them to carry the message of the Savior to Macedonia.
To preach and teach the Word to a dying and lost world is never really an issue in the will of God, but exactly when and where (time and place) is an issue in keeping with God’s preparation of the soil of human hearts. As Christians, we are all called to be a part of promoting the spread of the glorious truths of the Word, but where, when, and how are important matters that need to be discerned in the will of God for each individual believer. Thus, the birth of the church at Thessalonica was the result of both God’s leading and the attentive ears of Paul and his missionary team.
Having arrived at Somothrace in Macedonia, the missionary team moved on through Neopolis to Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia and a Roman colony. There Lydia, whose heart God had opened for the gospel, and her household were led to the Christ with a church being established in her home. After some days of ministry there, Paul and Silas were arrested on false charges, beaten, and thrown into jail. Following a miraculous deliverance by the Lord, the Philippian jailer and his household were also led to the Savior (Acts 16:19-40).
These circumstances forced the missionaries to leave Philippi. So after encouraging the new believers, the missionary team left the city (though Luke may have stayed behind temporarily) and journeyed on through Amphipolis and Appollonia to the important city of Thessalonica. It appears from Luke’s account that they simply passed by these two towns, but why? Did they not need the gospel also? Certainly, but Paul’s strategy took him to the larger cities and for a very good reason. It was not because they had no burden for these people, but because apparently it was Paul’s strategy to minister in the larger cities with a view to having those churches reach out into the smaller communities as people naturally moved in and out of the larger and busier cities (see 1 Thess. 1:7-8). Thessalonica even contained a synagogue because the city had attracted Jewish merchants and Paul found this a natural place to begin. It was a city of commerce with a population of 200,000. This meant a lot of traffic with people moving in and out of the city from the surrounding regions. Once people were led to Christ and trained, these new converts could take the gospel to other regions (cf. 1:8-9) and vastly multiply Paul’s ministry. Further, Paul could more easily practice his trade and support himself in a city like Thessalonica (cf. Acts 18:3; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8).
Though Paul was commissioned to carry the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Eph. 3:1-12), it was his policy to begin his ministry among the Jews, usually at the local synagogue where the Old Testament was known and revered.
Paul could get a sympathetic hearing in the synagogue, at least until persecution began. Furthermore, there were always many Gentile “God-fearers” in the synagogues, and through them Paul could began a witness to the pagan Gentiles. Add to this Paul’s great burden for the Jews (Romans 9:1-3 and 10:1), and the historical principle of “To the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16), and you can see why Paul and his associates began their work in the synagogue.2
According to Luke, the converts at Thessalonica included Jews and a great multitude of devout Greeks who were attracted by the monotheism and morality of Judaism and who had attached themselves to the synagogue (Acts 17:4). Some of the believers were of the upper classes, but most were apparently of the working class since Paul refused to accept any financial aid while he was there. This response drew people away from the Jewish community which angered the Jews and caused them to resort to violence and mob activity. They attacked the home of Jason, Paul’s host, and dragged him before the rulers where he was charged with harboring traitors to Caesar. This charge of treason is the first recorded after the trial of Jesus before Pilate and could have been an outgrowth of the eschatological preaching of Paul at Thessalonica as seen in these epistles. After Jason put up a bond, forfeitable if there was further trouble, Paul and his cohorts were freed and journeyed on to Berea. They were soon driven from Berea also by Jews who pursued them from Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-14). From there they went to Athens where Timothy joined the team, but he was quickly sent back to the young church at Thessalonica to check on their condition.
It is really not so surprising that, due to the glorious nature of the message of the gospel, people came to Christ and churches were founded across the country. The amazing thing, considering the pagan atmosphere in which the new converts were immersed, is that they grew, reached out, and endured. With the exception of the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles who attended the synagogue, the greater body of converts came to Christ from outright paganism. They were surrounded with a culture of heathenism and gross immorality. This led to enormous temptation to return to their old ways and significant persecution if they refused to recant their faith in Christ.
The Christian missionaries were carrying the war into the enemies’ country. After every new conquest, annoying guerrilla warfare was set up behind them. Heathenism and immorality, in a thousand forms, were always pressing in upon the territory that had been won. The early converts were often made of very feeble clay. They had only begun to understand the principles of the Christian life. When Paul had left them, when they were thrown upon their own resources, would they not simply drift back to their old ways?
This question must always have filled Paul with anxiety. In facing it he needed all his faith in the power of God. Anxiety must have been particularly intense when as so often, Paul was driven out of a new church before his work in it was done. With what eagerness, after such a forcible departure, must Paul have awaited the first news of the youthful church!
In First Thessalonians we discover just how Paul felt when the first news arrived. First Thessalonians is the only one of the Pauline epistles which was written at just such a time. Hence its peculiar interest.3
As with Philippi, the Apostle had been driven out of Thessalonica by persecution from the Jews and from there he had gone on to Berea. But even in Berea the hatred of the Jews had pursued him, so the Berean believers escorted the Apostle to Athens. It appears that since Silas and Timothy had not been as conspicuous as Paul, they were able to remain at Berea (Acts 17:11-15). As Bruce points out:
He had been virtually expelled as a trouble maker from one Macedonian city after another. Had he and his companions been mistaken when they crossed the sea from Asia Minor to Macedonia under a conviction of divine guidance? Had the Macedonian mission proved abortive? In each Macedonian city visited they had established a community of believers. But the missionaries had been forced to leave these young converts abruptly, quite inadequately equipped with the instruction and encouragement necessary to enable them to stand firm in the face of determined opposition. Would their immature faith prove equal to the challenge? It did, outstandingly so, but this could not have been foreseen. The first gospel campaign in Macedonia, in the light of the sequel, can be recognized as an illustrious success, but at the time when Paul was compelled to leave the province it must have been felt as a heartbreaking failure.4
From Thessalonica to Athens to Corinth (Acts 17:16–18:17)
Paul instructed the returning Bereans to have Silas and Timothy join him immediately at Athens (see Acts 17:15 and 1 Thess 3:1). Paul then sent Timothy back to Macedonia for the purpose of strengthening and encouraging the Thessalonian believers and to bring back a report about their faith and spiritual condition. Silas was probably sent on a similar mission to Philippi.
While these two co-workers were gone, Paul, having experienced a relatively fruitless ministry at Athens (Acts 17:16-34), left Athens and went to the city of Corinth. There he enjoyed a spiritually prosperous ministry for a year and a half.
If the stay in Athens was about two months, his arrival in Corinth must have been in December, A.D. 49, or January, A.D. 50. If we allow time for Timothy’s round trip to Thessalonica on foot and also time for his ministry in Thessalonica, then he and Silas probably returned to Paul from Macedonia in the spring of A.D. 50 (Acts 18:5; 1 Thess 3:6, 7). Timothy’s report on Thessalonica was so encouraging that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians almost immediately.5
The Occasion for the Epistle
From Timothy’s report and perhaps also as the result of a letter brought to him from the Thessalonian church, Paul learned about the situation and the needs of the believers at Thessalonica. He learned first of all about the spiritual stamina of the Thessalonian converts in the face of fierce persecution and opposition (1:6; 3:6-10). But he also learned the disturbing news of how the Jews had slandered him accusing him of teaching error and of false motives. The nature of their slander has been accurately captured by Frame:
Among other things, the Jews had asserted (I Thess. 2:1-12) that in general Paul’s religious appeal arose in error, meaning that his gospel was not a divine reality but a human delusion; that it arose in impurity, hinting that the enthusiastic gospel of the Spirit led him into immorality; and that it was influenced by sinister motives, implying that Paul, like the pagan itinerant impostors of religious or philosophical cults … was working solely for his own selfish advantage. Furthermore and specifically the Jews had alleged that Paul, when he was in Thessalonica, had fallen into cajoling address, had indulged in false pretenses to cover his greed, and had demanded honour from the converts, as was his wont, using his position as an apostle of Christ to tax his credulous hearers. Finally, in proof of their assertions, they pointed to the unquestioned fact that Paul had not returned, the inference being that he did not care for his converts and that he had no intention of returning. The fact that Paul found it expedient to devote three chapters of his first letter to a defense against these attacks is evidence suspicion of some of the converts was aroused and that the danger of their being beguiled away from the faith was imminent.6
There was also the report about the confusion that existed on the part of some regarding the return of the Lord and the Day of the Lord. Some wondered how the return of the Lord might affect one or more of the converts who had since died (4:13-18). Due to the intensity of the persecutions, it appears some thought that “the Day of the Lord” had arrived so this issue also had to be addressed (5:1-15). Finally, Paul learned of certain weaknesses in the church that needed to be dealt with. They were under pressure to return to their former lifestyles (3:2-3; 4:1-10), some members were not working in view of the imminency of the return of the Lord (4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6ff.), some were not showing the respect that was needed for their leaders, and there was confusion in regard to the public gatherings together (5:19-21).
The Purpose and Theme of the Epistle
The purpose and burden of the Apostle in writing to the Thessalonians can be summarized as follows:
1. To express his thankfulness for what God was doing in the lives of the Thessalonians (1:2-3),
2. To defend himself against a campaign to slander his ministry (2:1-12),
3. To encourage them to stand fast against persecution and pressure to revert to their former pagan life-styles (3:2-3; 4:1-12),
4. To answer a doctrinal question pertaining to the fate of Christians who had died (4:1-13),
5. To answer questions regarding the “Day of the Lord” (5:1-11),
6. And to deal with certain problems that had developed in their corporate life as a church (5:12-13; 19-20).
In the midst of all of this, two major themes arise in the study and reading of 1 and 2 Thessalonians:
The first theme is the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a subject found at the close of every chapter. Concerning Christ’s return there is a two-fold emphasis of both a confident expectation along with the call to live in readiness in the light of His imminent coming.
The second theme revolves around the ministry of the local church and its life in the world. In this the Apostle balances the prophetic with the practical. As in other places, the doctrine of the return of Christ for the church is a truth that should transform how we live as individuals and as a corporate body of God’s people.
The Length of Paul’s Ministry at Thessalonica
Some debate has existed over just how long Paul ministered at Thessalonica. Acts 17:2 tells us that “according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” Some have understood from this that the Apostle was only in Thessalonica for three weeks. Others conclude that “the three weeks” simply means that he preached in the synagogue for only three weeks but after that he evidently moved his ministry to another location. The evidence may suggest that he was there for a little more than three weeks, but how much longer we simply do not know other than it was a relatively short time. From Philippians 4:16 we know that the Philippians may have sent more than one gift to the Apostle while he was in Thessalonica, but this does not necessarily assume a long period since the journey from Philippi to Thessalonica required only about 5 or 6 days, a period that could well fit within a three or four week period. Further, a careful study of Philippians 4:16 does not necessarily indicate more than one gift from Philippi. Ryrie writes:
A careful study of Philippians 4:16 would indicate that it probably does not mean that Paul received several gifts from the Philippians while at Thessalonica. This verse may be translated, “Both (when I was) in Thessalonica and more than once (when I was in other places) you sent … (cf. Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, p. 17).7
We also know that he continued to support himself with his trade as a tent maker (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:6-15), but even this does not necessarily prove a stay longer than three weeks. As Wiersbe points out, “If Paul were there only three weeks, he certainly taught the new Christians a great deal of basic Bible doctrine. As we study these two letters, we will discover that almost every major doctrine of the Christian faith is mentioned.”8 I personally believe it was not much longer than three weeks, perhaps six at the most, but regardless, the amount of doctrine taught in this short span of time clearly demonstrates the priority the Apostle placed on the doctrines of the Word.
Lessons We Can Learn
From This Background Information
While the exposition of this epistle will teach us a great deal about the ministry and strategy of the Apostle Paul, a missionary extraordinaire, the preceding historical background can teach us a number of very practical truths if we only have ears to hear.
(1) God uses ordinary people. In Revelation 14:6 we are told that in the future, along with His other witnesses, God will use an angel flying in mid-heaven who will proclaim an eternal gospel, but generally God does not send angels to preach the gospel. Rather He uses people, ordinary people. God has chosen men and women as His ambassadors for Christ, mere earthen vessels to manifest the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves (2 Cor. 4:6-7; 5:17).
(2) God takes ordinary people from all walks of life, but with one consistent ingredient. He uses those who are committed to the Lord, and sensitive to His leading and burden for the world; men and women available to become living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1f.) and willing to go wherever God leads to reach others with the message of Christ. So, to reach the Thessalonians, He sent a converted and transformed Jew with his fellow workers to spread the gospel in Macedonia.
(3) The Word of God is central in Paul’s methodology. The key to Paul’s strategy and the ability of this church to endure the pressures they faced from the religious persecution of the Jews and the paganism of that day was their knowledge of the Word. In a little over three weeks he taught this congregation a great deal of Bible doctrine. He did not lean on the world’s gimmicks or strategies to reach people and establish a growing, thriving, and enduring ministry. In Acts 17:2 we are told that according to Paul’s custom, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures. Why? Because the Apostle and his missionary team understood a vital truth. It is the gospel and the Word of God as a whole that is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16) ministered not by man’s power or wisdom or human ingenuity, but ministered by the power of the Spirit of God. It was so then and it is so today (cf. Acts 1:8; Zech. 4:6; 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 1 Thess. 1:5 and 2:13).
(4) Though the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, Satan and the world, especially the religious world, stand vehemently opposed to the message of Christ. While Satan and his world system will often gladly accept and integrate other religions into the world’s system, the world stands ready to oppose and persecute Christians who refuse to compromise and who stand firm in their faith. Paul warned these believers of this very truth as did the Lord (John 15:18-20; 1 Thess. 2:17; 3:3).
(5) Though Satan may hinder and even cause believers to be cast into prison, the Word is not bound and God is able to direct His saints to fulfill His sovereign purposes for the greater progress of the gospel. Truly, He takes the wrath of man and uses it to praise Him (Ps. 76:10). The success of the gospel and the enduring faith of the Thessalonians illustrate the truth of Philippians 1:12ff.; 1 Thessalonians 3:10f. and 2 Timothy 2:8-9.
Date and Place of Writing
Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians were written from Corinth during the Apostle’s eighteen-month stay in that city (cf. Acts 18:1-11). The first epistle was written during the earlier part of that period just after Timothy had returned from Thessalonica with news of the progress of the church, and the second letter was dispatched just a few weeks later (or at the most a few months). Any date assigned will have to be approximate, though probably … AD 51-52.
Reasons for Studying 1 and 2 Thessalonians
1. First and fundamentally, as a part of the Word of God and as letters written to the church, the body of Christ, they deserve our careful study for the purpose of knowing and applying God’s truth to life.
2. These epistles give us insight into the heart and motivations of the Apostle Paul and so also to the kind of heart we all need in caring for others in ministry or pastoral care.
3. They show us how Paul worked with and helped young converts. They give insight into the realm of what we can call ‘pediatrics.’
4. They picture a local church in its most elementary New Testament form.
5. They each present special insight into the Lord’s return and how that is to impact our lives in terms of greater spirituality. In other words, both epistles show the practical ramifications of prophecy or things to come. In that regard, note the following facts about 1 Thessalonians: Every chapter ends with a reference to the coming of the Lord Jesus, and each reference relates the doctrine of His coming to some aspect of practical Christian living. Here is a suggested summary:
1:10—salvation and assurance
2:19-20—soul-winning and service
3:12-13—stability in Christian living
4:13-18—strength for sorrow in the face of death
5:23-24—sanctification of life.
The outline that follows is derived from 1:3 and three very significant phrases as stressed in the Greek text, “the work of faith,” “the labor of love,” and “the endurance of hope.”9 This can be summarized as: The past: the work of faith (1:1–3:13); The present: the labor of love (4:1-4:12); The prospective: the endurance of hope (4:13–5:28). While this exact outline will not be followed in the exposition, it is offered as an alternative overview of the book.
I. The past: the work of faith (1:1–3:13)
A. The commendation of the Thessalonians (1:1-10)
1. The evaluation of Paul (1:1-4)
2. The evidence of life (1:5-7)
3. The explanation of the evidence (1:8-10)
B. The conduct of the Apostle and his co-workers (2:1-12)
1. Their witness (2:1-2)
2. Their word (2:3-7a)
3. Their walk (2:7b-12)
C. The conduct of the Thessalonians (2:13-16)
1. Their reception of the word (2:13)
2. Their response to the word (2:14)
3. The rejection of the word (2:15-16)
D. The concern of the Apostle (2:17-20)
1. His heart for the Thessalonians (2:17)
2. His hindrance by Satan (2:18)
3. His hope in the Thessalonians (2:19-20)
E. The confirmation of the Thessalonians (3:1-10)
1. The sending of Timothy (3:1-5)
2. The report of Timothy (3:6-10)
F. The concluding prayer (3:11-13)
1. The prayer that he might return to the Thessalonians (3:11)
2. The prayer that the Thessalonians might grow in love (3:12)
3. The prayer that their hearts might be established in holiness (3:13)
II. The present: the labor of love (4:1-12)
A. Their love for God expressed in sanctified living (4:1-8)
B. Their love for the brethren, an expression of being God taught (4:9-10)
C. Their love for the lost expressed in godly living (4:11-12)
III. The prospective: the endurance of hope (4:13–5:28)
A. Concerning the day of Christ: the comfort of His coming (4:13-18)
1. The resurrection of sleeping saints (4:13-16)
2. The rapture of living saints (4:17-18)
B. Concerning the day of the Lord (5:1-11)
1. The coming of the day of the Lord (5:1-5)
2. The conduct of Christians (5:6-10)
3. The conclusion (5:11)
C. Concerning deportment in the congregation (5:12-28)
1. The concluding prescription (5:12-22)
2. The concluding petition (5:23-24)
3. The concluding postscript (5:25-28)