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Introduction to the Thessalonian Letters

 

A. Brief Summary

1. The Thessalonian letters provide tremendous insight into Paul as both missionary and pastor. We find him establishing a church in a brief time and continuing to pray and be concerned about its growth, development, and ministry.

2. We see him faithfully proclaiming the gospel, concerned for the converts, scolding them, praising them, guiding them, exhorting them, teaching them, loving them, even giving of himself to them. He was thrilled with their progress to that point, but was disappointed with the rate at which they matured.

3. In these Epistles we meet a zealous, loving servant of Christ and a small, zealous, but growing new church. Both were faithful, both were used by God, and both served each other in a Christlike manner seldom found among God's people.

 

B. The City of Thessalonica

1. Brief History of Thessalonica

a. Thessalonica was located at the head of the Thermaic Gulf. Thessalonica was a coastal town on the major Roman road, Via Ignatia (the way of the nations), running eastward from Rome. A seaport, it was also very close to a rich, well-watered, coastal plain. These three advantages made Thessalonica the largest, most important commercial and political center in Macedonia.

b. Thessalonica was originally named Therma, derived from the hot springs located in the area. An early historian, Pliny the Elder, refers to Therma and Thessalonica existing together. If this is the case, Thessalonica simply surrounded Therma and annexed it (Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991, p. 11). Yet most historians believe Cassander, one of Alexander the Great's generals, renamed Therma in 315 b.c. after Philip of Macedonia's daughter and Alexander's half-sister and his wife, Thessalonica (Strabo VII Fragment 21). Sometime during the early centuries of the spread of Christianity, Thessalonica came to be nicknamed "the orthodox city" because of its Christian character (Dean Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul, New York: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1904, p. 364). Today Thessalonica is known as Salonika and it still is an important city in Greece.

c. Thessalonica was a cosmopolitan metropolis similar to Corinth, inhabited by peoples from all over the known world.

(1) Barbaric Germanic peoples from the north were living there, bringing with them their pagan religion and culture.

(2) Greeks lived there, coming from Achaia to the south and from the islands of the Aegean Sea, in turn bringing their refinement and philosophy.

(3) Romans from the west also settled there. They were mostly retired soldiers and they brought their strength of will, wealth and political power.

(4) Finally, Jews came in large numbers from the east; eventually one third of the population was Jewish. They brought with them their ethical monotheistic faith and their national prejudices.

d. Thessalonica, with a population of about 200,000, was truly a cosmopolitan city. It was a resort and health center because of the hot springs. It was a commercial center because of its seaport, fertile plains and the proximity of the Ignatian Way.

e. As the capital and largest city, Thessalonica was also the central political headquarters of Macedonia. Being a Roman provincial capital and home of many Roman citizens (mostly retired soldiers), it became a free city. Thessalonica paid no tribute and was governed by Roman law, since most Thessalonians were Roman citizens. Thus the Thessalonian rulers were called "politarchs." This title appears nowhere else in literature but it is preserved by an inscription over the triumphal arch at Thessalonica known as the Vardar Gate (Farrar, p. 371n.).

2. Events Leading to Paul's Coming to Thessalonica

a. Many events led Paul to Thessalonica, yet behind all the physical circumstances is the direct, definite call of God. Paul had not originally planned to enter the European continent. His desire on this second missionary journey was to revisit the churches in Asia Minor that he had established on his first journey and then to turn eastward. Yet, just as the moment arrived to turn northeastward, God started closing the doors. The culmination of this was Paul's Macedonian vision (cf. Acts 16:6-10). This caused two things to happen: first, the continent of Europe was evangelized and second, Paul, because of circumstances in Macedonia, began writing his Epistles (Thomas Carter, Life and Letters of Paul, Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1921, p. 112).

b. After noting the above spiritual direction, the physical circumstances that led Paul to Thessalonica were:

(1) Paul went to Philippi, a small town with no synagogue. His work there was thwarted by the owners of a prophetic, demonic slave girl and the town council. Paul was beaten and humiliated yet a church was formed even in the midst of all this. Because of the opposition and physical punishment, Paul was forced to leave, possibly sooner than he had wished.

(2) Where would he go from there? He passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia that also had no synagogue,

(3) He came to the largest city in the area, Thessalonica, which did have a synagogue. Paul had made it a pattern to go to the local Jews first. He did this because:

(a) of their knowledge of the Old Testament;

(b) of the opportunity for teaching and preaching that the synagogue presented;

(c)of their position as the chosen people, God's covenant people (cf. Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Rom. 1:16-17; 9-11);

(d) Jesus had offered Himself first to them, then to the world—so too, Paul would follow Christ's example.

3. Paul's Companions

a. Paul was accompanied by Silas and Timothy in Thessalonica. Luke was with Paul at Philippi and he remained there. We learn this by the "we" and "they" passages of Acts 16 and 17. Luke speaks of "we" at Philippi, but of "they" as traveling to Thessalonica.

b. Silas, or Silvanus, was the man Paul chose to go with him on the second missionary journey after Barnabas and John Mark went back to Cyprus:

(1) He is first mentioned in the Bible in Acts 15:22 where he is called a chief man among the brethren of the Jerusalem Church.

(2) He was also a prophet (cf. Acts 15:32).

(3) He was a Roman citizen like Paul (cf. Acts 16:37).

(4) He and Judas Barsabbas were sent to Antioch by the Jerusalem Church to inspect the situation (cf. Acts 15:22,30-35).

(5) Paul praises him in II Cor. 1:19 and mentions him in several letters.

(6) Later he is identified with Peter in writing I Peter (cf. I Pet. 5:12).

(7) Both Paul and Peter call him Silvanus while Luke calls him Silas.

c. Timothy was also a companion and fellow-worker of Paul:

(1) Paul met him at Lystra where he was converted on the first missionary journey.

(2) Timothy was half Greek (father) and half Jewish (mother). Paul wanted to use him to work with evangelizing the Gentiles.

(3) Paul circumcised him so that he could work with Jewish people.

(4) Timothy is mentioned in the salutation in: II Corinthians, Colossians, I and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon.

(5) Paul spoke of him as "my son in the ministry" (cf. I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4).

(6) Paul's general tone throughout his letters implies that Timothy was young and timid. Yet Paul has great confidence and trust in him (cf. Acts 19:27; I Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:19).

d. It is only fitting in the section on Paul's companions that mention is made of the men who came to Thessalonica and accompanied Paul on his later missions. They are Aristarchus (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2) and Secundus (Acts 20:4). Also, Demas could have been from Thessalonica (Philem. 24; II Tim. 4:10).

4. Paul's Ministry in the City

a. Paul's ministry in Thessalonica followed his usual pattern of going to the Jews first and then turning to the Gentiles. Paul preached on three Sabbaths in the synagogue. His message was "Jesus is the Messiah." He used Old Testament Scriptures to show that the Messiah was to be a suffering Messiah (cf. Gen. 3:15; Isa. 53), and not a political temporal Messiah. Paul also emphasized the resurrection and offered salvation to all. Jesus was clearly presented as the Messiah promised of old who could save all peoples.

b. The response to this message was that some Jews, many devout Gentiles, and many important women accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. An analysis of these groups of converts is very meaningful in understanding Paul's later letters to this church.

c.  Gentiles comprised most of the members of the church, seen by the absence of allusions to the OT in either of the two epistles. The Gentiles readily accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord for several reasons:

(1) Their traditional religions were powerless superstition. Thessalonica lay at the foot of Mt. Olympus and all knew its heights were empty.

(2) The gospel was free to all.

(3) Christianity contained no Jewish exclusive nationalism. The Jewish religion had attracted many because of its monotheism and its high morals, but it also repelled many because of its repugnant ceremonies (such as circumcision), and its inherent racial and national prejudices.

d. Many "chief women" accepted Christianity, because of these women's abilities to make their own religious choices. Women were more free in Macedonia and Asia Minor than in the rest of the Greco-Roman world (Sir Wm. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1896, p. 227). Yet the poorer class of women, although free, were still under the sway of superstition and polytheism (Ramsay, p. 229).

e. Many have found a problem in the length of time that Paul stayed at Thessalonica:

(1) Acts 17:2 speaks of Paul's reasoning in the synagogue on three Sabbaths while in Thessalonica.

(2) 1 Thess. 2:7-11 tells of Paul's working at his trade. This was tent-making or as some have suggested working with leather.

(3) Phil. 4:16 supports the longer residence, when Paul received at least two money gifts from the church at Philippi while in Thessalonica. The distance between the two cities is about 100 miles. Some suggest that Paul stayed about two or three months and that the three Sabbaths only refer to the ministry to the Jews (Shepard, p. 165).

(4) The differing accounts of the converts in Acts 17:4 and 1 Thess. 1:9 and 2:4 support this view, the key difference in the accounts being the rejection of idols by the Gentiles. The Gentiles in Acts were Jewish proselytes and had already turned from idols. The context implies Paul may have had a larger ministry among pagan Gentiles than Jews.

(5) When a larger ministry might have occurred is uncertain because Paul always went to the Jews first. After they rejected his message, he turned to the Gentiles. When they responded to the gospel in large numbers, the Jews became jealous (which was one of Paul's missionary techniques, cf. Rom. 9-11) and started a riot among the rabble of the city.

f. Because of a riot Paul left Jason's house and hid with Timothy and Silas or at least they were not present when the mob stormed Jason's house looking for them. The Politarchs made Jason put up a security bond to insure peace. This caused Paul to leave the city by night and go to Berea. Nevertheless, the church continued its witness of Christ in the face of much opposition.

AUTHOR

A. 1 Thessalonians. Only modern form critics have seriously doubted the Paul's authorship and the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians, but their conclusions have not convinced many scholars. 1 Thessalonians is included in Marcion's canon (a.d. 140) and in the Muratorian Fragment (a.d. 200). Both lists of canonical books of the NT circulated in Rome. Irenaeus quoted 1 Thessalonians by name—he wrote around a.d. 180.

 

B. 2 Thessalonians.

1. The book of 2 Thessalonians has not always been accepted as Pauline and has been attacked on several grounds: a.The vocabulary poses one problem. The letter contains many words not found in the other Pauline letters.

b. "The style is stereotyped and at times curiously formal" (Heard, p. 186).

c. The eschatology of the two letters is supposedly inconsistent.

d. 2 Thessalonians contains a view of the anti-Christ unique in the NT, therefore, some conclude that Paul could not be the author.

2. The authenticity of 2 Thessalonians is based on several premises:

a. Polycarp, Ignatius, and Justin recognized it

b. The Marcionite canon included it

c. The Muratorian Fragment included it

d. Irenaeus quoted it by name

e. The vocabulary, style and theology are as Pauline as 1 Thessalonians

 

C. The Two Compared

1. The two letters are very similar, not only in ideas, but also in actual phraseology. If the opening and closing formula language are excluded, resemblances still occur in about one-third of the material.

2. The general tone of 2 Thessalonians is different from the first letter, being colder and more formal. Yet this can easily be understood when one sees the emotional circumstances involved in the writing of the first letter and the developed problems of the second letter.

 

D. The Order of the Letters

1. Another interesting hypothesis is presented by F. W. Manson using Johannes Weiss' notes. They contend that the order of the books is reversed. The reasons for this are:

a. the trials and tribulations are at their height in 2 Thessalonians, but are past in 1 Thessalonians;

b. in 2 Thessalonians the internal difficulties are spoken of as a new development of which the author of the letter has just learned, whereas in 1 Thessalonians the circumstances were familiar to all concerned;

c. the statement that the Thessalonians have no need to be instructed about times and seasons (1 Thess. 5:1) is very relevant if they are acquainted with 2 Thessalonians 2;

d. the formula "Now concerning..." in 1 Thess. 4:9, 13; 5:1, is like that in I Cor. 7:1,25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1,12, where the writer is replying to points raised in a letter sent to him. Manson thinks that the replies might concern certain questions arising from statements in 2 Thessalonians.

2. Several premises may counteract this argument:

a. the problems occupying Paul's attention intensify and deepen from 1 Thessalonians to 2 Thessalonians;

b. the passages in 2 Thessalonians refer to a letter from Paul (2:2, 15; 3:17) and if we assume this letter not to be 1 Thessalonians, then we have the problem of a lost letter;

c. the personal reminiscences forming so prominent a part of the first letter are lacking in the second, which seems natural if the letter is a sequel to the first;

d. the tone of the letters seems completely unnatural to this situation if the order is reversed.

 

DATE OF LETTERS

A. The date for the writing of the Thessalonian Letters is one of the most certain dates we have involving Paul's letters. It is recorded that while Paul was in "Corinth he was arrested and brought before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia." An inscription discovered at Delphi answers a question referred to the Emperor Claudius by this same Gallio. It was dated in the twelfth year of the Emperor's tribunal power and after his twenty-sixth acclamation as Emperor. This twelfth year was from 25 January a.d. 52 through 24 January a.d. 53. While the date of the twenty-sixth acclamation is not exactly known, the twenty-seventh was before 1 August a.d. 52. Claudius' decision would have been given to Gallio during the first half of 52. Now, proconsuls usually took office in early summer and held office for one year. It would seem, therefore, Gallio entered his term of office in the early summer of 51 (Morris, p. 15).

 

B. This dating of the term of office of the proconsul does not completely solve all the problems of the dating of the Thessalonian Letters. Paul was in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:11) but at which time he appeared before Gallio is not known. Most commentators date I and 2 Thessalonians in a.d. 50-51.

 

C. Possible chronology of Paul's writings following F. F. Bruce and Murray J. Harris with minor adaptations.

 

 

  Book Date Place of Writing Relation to Acts
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.-10.

11.-13.

 

Galatians 
1 Thessalonians  
2 Thessalonians 
I Corinthians  
II Corinthians 
Romans  
Prison Letters
Colossians  
Ephesians  
Philemon  
Philippians   
Fourth Missionary Journey
I Timothy  
Titus 
II Timothy 
48 
50
50 
55
56  
57

early 60s
early 60s
early 60s
late 62-63

63 (or later,
63 but before
64 a.d. 68)

Syrian Antioch  
Corinth 
Corinth
Ephesus 
Macedonia
Corinth 

Rome
Rome
Rome
Rome

Macedonia
Ephesus (?)
Rome

14:28; 15:2
18:5

19:20
20:2
20:3

28:30-31

 

  

EVENTS SURROUNDING THE THESSALONIAN LETTERS

A. The events that led to Paul's writing of the Thessalonian letters are complex and intertwined. Certain distinctions must be noted, especially concerning the physical setting and the emotional setting. Paul was forced to leave the new Thessalonian believers because the Jews had incited the superstitious, polytheistic rabble of the city to riot at Jason's house in a search for Paul and his companions. After a hearing before the Politarchs, Jason and other Christian leaders were forced to put up a security bond to assure peace. When Paul heard of this he knew he had to move on and leave this young, immature church. He, therefore, went to Berea with Timothy and Silas. Timothy apparently stayed at first (cf. Acts 17:10) then later joined Silas to go to Athens (cf. Acts 17:15). At first the honest reception of the Jews at Berea was a blessing to Paul in the face of such strong Jewish opposition previously. Yet this did not last long. The Jews from Thessalonica came down to Berea and started causing trouble. Therefore, Paul had to leave again.

 

B. This time Paul went to Athens where he received a cold and unresponsive welcome. He became a novelty to the academic philosophers. His experience in Macedonia was characterized by persecution and opposition. He was beaten, stripped naked, and chased out of town by night. Scholars mocked him, and pagans and many of his own countrymen hated him (cf. II Cor. 4:7-11; 6:4-10; 11:23-29).

 

C. Paul had been forced to leave this promising church at Thessalonica at a crucial time. They were immature in the faith and were facing affliction and persecution. Paul could stand the mental anguish no longer. Worried about the young converts, somewhere between Berea and Athens, Paul sent Timothy and Silas back to the new Macedonian churches. Timothy went to Thessalonica. Many feel he stayed and ministered there for six months to a year. The church desperately needed someone to teach them, comfort them and encourage them. Timothy himself was a fairly new convert. He was converted on Paul's first missionary journey, but he had only been with Paul since Paul went to Lystra on his second missionary journey. He was, therefore, new in the ministry but Paul had great confidence in him. This was Timothy's first assignment as Paul's official representative.

 

D. Paul ministered in Athens alone and he became very discouraged and depressed because of the lack of response to the gospel in Macedonia and his incessant concern for the new Christians there. He was concerned about the Thessalonian church in particular. Could a church be founded in such a short time and in difficult circumstances and still endure? (Carter, p. 115) To add to this he had received no word from Timothy and Silas for some time (six months to a year, although some say only one or two months) (Farrar, p. 369). This was the emotional state in which we found Paul as he arrived in Corinth.

 

E. In Corinth two things happened that greatly encouraged Paul.

1. The vision that God had many in Corinth who would respond to the gospel (Acts 18:9-10).

2. Timothy and Silas arrived and brought good news (Acts 18:5). It was Timothy's message from Thessalonica that would lead Paul to write to them from Corinth. Paul was responding to questions from the church on doctrinal and practical issues.

 

F. The writing of 2 Thessalonians was not long after 1 Thessalonians because it did not achieve all that Paul had hoped it would. Also, he had become aware of other problems. Many scholars believe 2 Thessalonians was written about six months after 1 Thessalonians

 

PURPOSE OF THE LETTERS

A. The Thessalonian Letters have a threefold purpose:

1. to share Paul's joy and thanksgiving to God for the faithfulness and Christlikeness of the Thessalonians, even amidst persecution.

2. to answer the criticism of his motives and character which had been brought against him.

3. to discuss the return of the Lord. This eschatological element of Paul's preaching caused two questions in the minds of the Thessalonian Christians:

a. What would happen to believers who had died before the Lord's return?

b. What would happen to the believers in the congregation who had stopped working and were sitting around waiting for the Lord's return (Barclay, pp. 21-22).

4. to answer specific questions asked by the church (cf. 4:13; 5:1).

 

B. Much of the above can be explained by the fact that this was a young and very zealous church. Yet because of the circumstances, they were imperfectly trained and disciplined. These problems represent what would be expected of a church of this nature: the new believers, the weak, the fainthearted, the idle, the visionary, and the puzzled.

 

C. The occasion for 2 Thessalonians was, "It is simply a second prescription for the same case, made after discovering that certain stubborn symptoms had not yielded to the first treatment." (Walker, p. 2968)

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SOURCES CITED

Barclay, William. The Letters and the Revelation. The New Testament. 2 vol. New York: Collins, 1969.

Carter, Thomas. Life and Letters of Paul. Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1921.

Farrar, Dean. The Life and Work of St. Paul. New York: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1904.

Heard, Richard. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1950.

Metzger, Bruce Manning. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965.

Manson, T. W. Studies in the Gospels and Epistles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962.

Morris, Leon. The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Ramsay, W. M. St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1896.

Shepard, J. W. The Life and Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950.

Walker, R. H. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. V. N. D.

CONTENT OUTLINE *

A. Greeting, 1:1

 

B. Prayer of Thanksgiving, 1:2-4

 

C. Reminiscences, 1:5-2:16

1. Response of the Thessalonians to the original preaching, 1:5-10

2. The preaching of the Gospel at Thessalonica, 2:1-16

a. The purity of the team's motives, 2:1-6a

b. The team's refusal to accept maintenance, 2:6b-9

c. The team's behavior had been impeccable, 2:10-12

d. The team's message of the Word of God, 2:13

e. Persecution, 2:14-16

 

D. The Relationship of Paul to the Thessalonians, 2:17-3:13

1. His desire to return, 2:17,18

2. Paul's joy in the Thessalonians, 2:19, 20

3. Timothy's mission, 3:1-5

4. Timothy's report, 3:6-8

5. Paul's satisfaction, 3:9, 10

6. Paul's prayer, 3:11-13

 

E. Exhortation to Christian Living, 4:1-12

1. General, 4:1, 2

2. Sexual purity, 4:3-8

3. Brotherly love, 4:9, 10

4. Earning one's living, 4:11, 12

 

F. Problems Associated with the Second Coming, 4:13-5:11

1. Believers who died before the Parousia, 4:13-18

2. The time of the Parousia, 5:1-3

3. Children of the day, 5:4-11

 

G. General Exhortations, 5:12-22

 

H. Conclusion, 5:23-28

 

 * This book does not outline as neatly into a doctrinal section and a practical section as most of Paul's other letters. If the general pattern is followed Paul's discussion of the Second Coming in 4:17-18 is the practical section, not the doctrinal! The Second Coming is not a doctrine to be affirmed only, but a life to live in anticipation of His any-moment return.

 

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