1 Thessalonians

How to read 1 Thessalonians


  • Content: a letter of thanksgiving, encouragement, exhortation, and information for very recent Gentile believers in Christ r Author: the apostle Paul, joined by his traveling companions Silas and Timothy

  • Date: A.D. 50 or 51, while Paul is in Corinth, probably the earliest document in the New Testament

  • Recipients: quite new converts to Christ in Thessalonica, mostly Gentile ( 1 :9- 10)-Thessalonica was a northern Aegean seaport that also sat astraddle the Egnatian Way (see "Orienting Data for Philippians," ); in the time of Paul it was the chief city of Macedonia

  • Occasion: the return of Timothy to Paul and Silas in Corinth; Timothy had been sent to Thessalonica to see how the new believers were doing (see 3:5-7)

  • Emphases: Paul's loving concern for his friends in Thessalonica; suffering as part of Christian life; holiness regarding sexual matters; the need to do one's own work and not live off the largesse of others; the resurrection of the Christian dead; readiness for Christ's coming


Put yourself in Paul's shoes. You have recently been to Macedonia,s major city, where you had had good success in preaching the good news about Christ. But your success also aroused enormous opposition. Your host was arrested and charged with high treason, while friends ushered you out of the city by night so that you wouldn't be brought before the authorities. Thus your stay was much shorter than you had expected, and the new believers are now pretty much on their own, without a long period of seasoned instruction in the way of Christ. (See the account in Acts 17: 1-9; the three Sabbath days mentioned in verse 2 does not mean that Paul was in the city for only that long. Rather that was how long he was able to work in the synagogue. Our letter indicates a church of much greater stability, Christian instruction, and renown than two or three

weeks would have produced.)

So what would you have done? Try as Paul did to return, despite the danger (1 Thess 2:17-18)? And what if you could not return, because "Satan blocked [your] way"? And all the time you know nothing about what has happened in Thessalonica since you left (these were the days before postal service, not to mention telephone and e-mail service!). Very likely you would do what Paul did: Send a younger colleague, who could return without fear of being recognized or of suffering personal danger.

Now Timothy has returned to Paul and Silas in Corinth. A full half of our letter (chs. 1-3) is about Paul's past, present, and future relationship with these new converts, told in basically chronological fashion. Two clear things about Paul emerge in this section: (1) his deep, personal anxiety about the Thessalonians' situation and (2) his equally deep relief to learn that things are going basically very well (you can almost hear his sigh of relief in 3:6-8). Two things also emerge about the Thessalonian believers in these two chapters: (1) They continue to undergo suffering and persecution, but (2) they are basically hanging in there with regard to their faith in Christ-although there are also some things lacking.

The rest of the letter takes up matters that have been reported to him by Timothy. Most of them are reminders (see 4:1-2, 9; 5:1) of instructions they had been given when Paul and his companions were among them-about sexual immorality; mutual love, which includes working for one's own sustenance; and the return of Christ. One altogether new item is also included, namely, what happens to believers who have died before the coming of Christ (4:13-18).


Keep in mind in reading this letter that it is most likely the earliest extant Christian document. To see how Paul deals with very new converts is part of the delight of reading. Notice especially how often Paul reminds them of things they already know (1:5; 2:1, 5, 9, 10, 11; 4:2, 9; 5:7). Given that Timothy's report about their faith was essentially positive and that on two matters Paul says there is no need to write (4:9; 5:1 ), the question is, why then write at all? The answer lies in 3:9-10, where Paul thanks God that overall they are doing quite well, but that there are also some deficiencies. Since he cannot come now he sends a letter as his way of being present and supplying "what is lacking in your faith."

On three matters (2:1 -12; 4:1 -8; 4:13 -5 :11) it is especially important to be aware of Greco-Roman culture in general and Thessalonian sociology in particular. First, every charge Paul defends himself against in 2:1-6 can be found in pagan philosophical writings-charges leveled against religious or philosophical charlatans. Almost certainly part of the suffering of the Thessalonian believers comes in the form of accusations against Paul (after all, he left town in the dead of night with political charges hanging in the air!). Second, the Greeks and Romans never considered immoral the kind of sexual behavior outside of marriage that both Jews and Christians saw as breaking the seventh commandment; what we would call sexual promiscuity -of all kinds- was simply an accepted way of life. Third, there is plenty of archaeological evidence indicating that the pagan Thessalonians were intensely interested in matters of life after death.

It is also of some interest to read I Thessalonians in conjunction with Philippians, since both are directed toward Macedonian (and therefore Greek) cities, yet their citizens are well known in antiquity for their loyalty to Caesar; in both cases Paul and the churches are undergoing persecution because of their loyalty to a "King" other than Caesar.

But there are differences as well. while 1 Thessalonians shows characteristics of a letter of friendship, that friendship was not of the more contractual kind Paul had with the Philippians. Note that in Philippi Paul had accepted financial support, whereas in Thessalonica, even though he stayed with Jason, he chose in this case to work with his own hands. This appears to mark a change in missionary strategy, which will serve Paul's theological interests in both Thessalonica and Corinth-here, because in 2 Thessalonians he will eventually appeal to his own example in order to reinforce the instruction given in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12. See further the comments on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15


After the briefest of all of Paul's salutations (1:1), he begins with what turns out to be an extended "thanksgiving turned report', on their relationship (1:2-3:10), followed by a typical prayer report (3:11-13).


Thanksgiving for Their Conversion

Thanksgiving over the Thessalonian believers' faithfulness very soon gives way to a reminder of their conversion. Four things are stressed: (1) Paul's and the Holy Spirit's role in their conversion; (2) as with Paul - and in imitation of Christ-they experienced suffering in coming to faith, plus joy in the Holy Spirit; (3) news of their conversion had preceded Paul to Corinth (Achaia); (4) conversion included a turning from idolatry and a waiting for Christ's return.


Recalling Paul's Ministry

For their own sakes, Paul defends himself against charges of being a religious huckster. Notice that in verses 7-12 he uses three family images (infant, mother, father!) to refer to his relationship with them.


The Thanksgiving - and Thessalonians' Suffering - Renewed

Note how much this echoes l:4-6. Here we also learn the source of their suffering ("your fellow Gentiles"), which reminds Paul of the source of his suffering (fellow Jews), whom he indicts for having crucified Christ and for trying to keep Gentiles from coming to faith (cf. Acts 17: 1 -8).


Paul , the Thessalonians, and Timothy

In successive paragraphs Paul picks up the narrative of his relationship with the Thessalonians since he (and Silas and Timothy) were "orphaned [!] . . . from you for a short time." First (2:17-20), he reports on his own attempts to return and the reason for it; second (3:1-5), he reports on the sending of Timothy-to see how they were doing in light of their suffering; third (3:6-10), he expresses his great relief over Timothy's report "about your faith and love." All of this ends with a renewed thanksgiving.


Prayer report

You should note that Paul prays for the very things he will now go on to speak about, namely, holiness, love, and the coming of Jesus Christ.


On Sexual Purity

Observe the clear shift here, as Paul moves on to pick up "what is lacking" in their faith (3:10). The first item is sexual immorality, reminding them that the God who called them and gave his Holy Spirit

to them also calls them to a monogamous sexual life.


On Love and Working with One's Hands

Paul now moves on to the matter of mutual love-that some are not to be unnecessarily burdensome to others. On this matter, and the need to speak to it again, see 2 Thessalonians.


On the Future of Christians Who have Died

This paragraph reminds us of how brief Paul's time with them must have been. They had heard plenty about Christ's return (see 1:9-10; 5:1-11), but in the meantime, some of their company had died (because ofthe persecution?), and they simply didn't know what was to become of them. The answer: The dead will be resurrected; the living will be transported into the presence of Christ at his coming.


On the Coming of Christ

In light of the anxiety caused over the matter just addressed, Paul adds some encouraging words about the corning of Christ and his readers' participation in it. Although often read as warning, the passage is clearly intended to be an encouragement to a suffering community of believers (v. 11, "therefore encourage one another"). Since they are children of the day, they neither engage in nighttime activities nor should be caught by surprise at Christ's coming.


Concluding Exhortations

In turn Paul encourages respect/honor for leaders (vv. 12- 13), urges healthy community relationships (vv. 14- 15), exhorts basic piety (continual rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving; vv. 1 6-1 8), and prods them to encourage prophecy, but to test it and hold fast the good (vv. 19-22).


Concluding Prayer and Greetings

The prayer in particular recapitulates many of the items just addressed.

Here is a letter full of good things for the building up of relationships

within the Christian community as we await the sure coming of our

Lord, who will bring the present story to an end.