1 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians Introduction

Thessalonica was one of the towns in Macedonia (the northern part of modern Greece) visited by Paul and his companions, Silas and Timothy, during his second missionary campaign (Acts 16–18). The town was the capital of the Roman province, a commercial centre situated on the major highway, the Via Egnatia, with a mixed population including Jews. After being forced to leave Philippi, Paul spent a brief time here, and he gained a number of converts from Jewish and Greek attenders at the synagogue and established a church. Opposition from Jews who did not respond to the message forced the missionaries to leave sooner than they would have wished (Acts 17:1–9). Paul went southwards into Achaia and stayed briefly in Athens and then for a longer period in Corinth. From Athens he sent Timothy back to visit the church (1 Thes. 3:1–6), and it was probably from Corinth that he wrote to them. 1 Thessalonians, therefore, was written within a matter of a few months or so from the time when the readers had first heard the gospel, and it should be read as a follow-up letter to new converts.

Nothing is known about the church during this brief period between its foundation and the composition of the letter apart from the allusions which it contains. The impression given is of a church which was free from groups preaching a different version of the gospel (contrast Galatia) and which was making good progress in developing in faith and love. Paul was concerned about whether the church could stand up to attacks from outside, but this was more because of its recent foundation than because of any basic weaknesses.

The major area in which Paul felt the need to give instruction was regarding the future advent (or parousia) of the Lord Jesus. It was not that there was any false teaching; rather the Thessalonian Christians had failed to appreciate properly the significance of Paul’s teaching about the parousia and about the resurrection of the dead.

The problems and needs which lie behind the letter are thus those of a church in its infancy, facing opposition from outside and lacking in the detailed teaching that Paul would have given if he had been able to stay longer with them. The letter suggests that the future coming of the Lord had played a fairly prominent part in Paul’s preaching, and he certainly refers to it with remarkable frequency in the letter (1:9–10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13–5:11; 5:23). Otherwise, the letter reflects the typical characteristics of Paul’s thought, including the distinctive use of the phrase ‘in Christ’ (and similar phrases) to describe the nature of the Christian life. Some of Paul’s most characteristic ideas, notably the doctrine of justification by faith, are absent, but this may be simply because nothing in the situation required the use of teaching which is particularly associated with polemic against a Jewish emphasis on the works of the law.

The letter is universally accepted as genuine. It has been argued that it has a peculiar shape, and attempts have been made to explain it as a combination of two or more documents or as a document which has been subjected to interpolations, but these theories are undoubtedly more ingenious than convincing. The letter makes admirable sense in its present form.

1 Thessalonians has the usual pattern of Pauline letters in that it begins with a greeting (1:1) followed by a report of how Paul remembers the church in his prayers. He thanks God for the way in which the continuing Christian life and witness of the church testify to the reality of the positive response of its members to his initial preaching of the gospel (1:2–10). This report has the effect of confirming that the church is in good health and thus of providing the readers with encouragement to carry on in the way they are doing. Then Paul comments on the character of his missionary work in the town, claiming that he and his companions acted uprightly and lovingly in every way (2:1–12). This may suggest that the opponents of the church were engaged in slandering the missionaries. Despite this opposition, the church had given a warm response to the gospel (2:13–16). The continuation of hostility to the church since Paul’s departure had worried him so much that he had wished to go back to see how things were; instead he had sent Timothy as his representative, and the latter had now returned full of enthusiasm for the healthy state of the church (2:17–3:13). Thus the first part of the letter is concerned with the good progress of the church despite opposition and helps to strengthen the ties between the absent writer and his readers.

In the remainder of the letter Paul gives the church the kind of teaching and practical advice which he would have liked to share with them in person. First, he encourages the readers to live holy lives—with special reference to the avoidance of sexual immorality—and to continue to grow in love (4:1–12). Secondly, he comforts those who were fearful about the fate of those of their number who had died by telling them that when the Lord returns, the resurrection of the dead will take place, so that those who ‘fell asleep’ in Christ will come with him and be reunited with those who are still alive. Believers need not worry about when this will take place; if they are truly ‘awake’ as Christians, they will not be taken by surprise like the unbelieving world (4:13–5:11). Finally, Paul encourages the communal life of the church by commending brotherly love and the use of spiritual gifts (5:12–24), and he closes the letter with personal greetings (5:25–28).

Further reading

J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians, BST (IVP, 1991).

L. Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1977).

———, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1977).

F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, WBC (Word, 1982).

I. H. Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, NCB (Eerdmans, 1983).

BST The Bible Speaks Today

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary

NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

NCB New Century Bible

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 Tes 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.