A Letter to the Thessalonians
If the books of the New Testament were arranged according to their dates of composition, the book of 1 Thessalonians would come first. Paul the Apostle wrote the epistle in about A.D. 50 or 51, some twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and likely before any of the Gospels were written. The epistle followed Paul’s visit to Thessalonica, which is described in Acts 17.
Paul, who was known prior to his conversion as Saul of Tarsus, was a key figure in the expansion of the Gospel to the first-century Gentile world. A former persecutor turned evangelist, he made at least three missionary journeys around the Mediterranean region, founding several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. Since Paul was both a Jew and a Roman citizen, he took advantage of his background to minister to both Jewish and Roman audiences on those trips. Later, he sent counsel and encouragement to the churches he had established and individuals in them; these epistles make up fourteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
Paul made his first missionary journey from A.D. 46 to 49, traveling with Barnabas through the Roman province of Galatia. Shortly after that trip, and perhaps ten or twelve years after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul set off on the second of his major outreach ventures. His travels on this occasion took him to several cities, including Thessalonica, which was a military and commercial port at the northwestern end of the Aegean Sea.
Thessalonica—originally named Therma after the many hot springs in the area—was located at the intersection of two Roman trade routes. One of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cassander, laid the foundation for a new city near the original city of Therma in 315 B.C., naming it Thessalonica after his wife, who was Alexander the Great’s half-sister. Thessalonica became a prominent city in the ancient world, and 146 years before the birth of Christ, it was made the capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia. At the time of Paul’s visit, it was governed by a wicked and mercenary ruler.
Immediately prior to his visit to Thessalonica, Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, had been in the Macedonian city of Philippi. There, they were instrumental in the deliverance of a fortune-telling slave girl who was possessed of an evil spirit. After a riot broke out because of her conversion, the two men were brought before the magistrates, beaten, and thrust into an inner prison. However, God miraculously delivered them by an earthquake, and as a result, the Philippian jailor and his family were converted.
Considering the shameful treatment they had just endured in Philippi, boldly preaching the same message in Thessalonica took God-given courage. However, Paul and Silas once again fearlessly proclaimed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, asserting that the traditional Jewish way of approaching God had been fulfilled in Him. Acts 17:2 details some of Paul’s activities in Thessalonica, noting that “Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them [the Jews], and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.”
That message did not sit well with the unbelieving Jewish religious leaders, and opposition flared up almost immediately. The Bible says the dissenters were “moved by envy.” Their accusation was “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also” (Acts 17:6).
The opposition in Thessalonica quickly became so intense that the believers there persuaded Paul and Silas to flee the city under cover of darkness and go to Berea, some forty-five miles distant. However, when the dissenters heard that Paul was in Berea, they followed him there, so he went on to Athens where he stayed for a short time, and then traveled further west to Corinth.
A thought to ponder: There is a sense in which the charge leveled against Paul and Silas should be true of every follower of Christ. In what ways should we, as Christians, be turning our world upside down?
Because of Paul’s hurried departure from Thessalonica, the new believers there had received only minimal teaching in the Christian doctrine. The Apostle knew they needed a solid spiritual foundation in order to survive in such a hostile environment, and since he could not return to Thessalonica himself, he sent Timothy to find out how the group was faring. When Timothy rejoined Paul in Corinth, he brought back an excellent report, and perhaps also delivered a letter from the Thessalonian church. In response, Paul wrote this epistle that we know as 1 Thessalonians. These are the first written words of the Apostle preserved in Scripture. Overall, Paul’s purpose in writing was to remind the Thessalonian believers of the truths that had been conveyed to them.
Paul’s opening greetings and commendation
Paul opened with a petition for the bestowment of grace and peace from “God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” upon the group at Thessalonica. This indicates that the deity of Jesus was not a later development of doctrine among the early Christians; rather, from the very beginning, believers regarded Jesus as the divine Son of God.
The Apostle went on to commend the saints in Thessalonica for a variety of reasons. Because it had been only a short time since they had turned from idols to serve the living God, Paul’s words of affirmation are especially noteworthy. They reveal the rapid spiritual progress and flourishing condition of one of the earliest churches of the New Testament.
One commendation occurs in verse 8 of the first chapter, where the Apostle wrote, “From you sounded out the word of the Lord.” The word translated as “sounded out” is unique and expressive, appearing nowhere else in the New Testament. It could aptly describe the blast of a trumpet—a clear and ringing tone that was penetrating, melodious, and demanding of attention. What a positive testimony to the impact these new Christians were already having on the society around them!
Paul also praised the Thessalonians for being faithful to “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). The word wait in this verse comes from the Greek word anameno, which means more than just enduring. It portrays an attitude of assurance regarding Christ’s return and the complete fulfillment of the Messianic promises of the Old Testament.
Paul went on to list additional reasons for his praise, including the Thessalonians’ work of faith, their labors of love, their patient hope and steadfastness in “much affliction,” their joy in the Holy Ghost, and their example to believers throughout the region.
A thought to ponder: If Paul were writing to us, would he be able to commend us for these behaviors? Both as a church body and as individuals, we want to exemplify the same faith, love, hope, steadfastness, and joy that were so evident in these new Thessalonian believers.
Topics in the epistle
Paul alluded to several topics in the course of this epistle to the Thessalonians. First, he reviewed with these new believers the great doctrines he had taught them, and described the nature of his ministry among them. He went on to encourage them to stand fast in spite of the persecution they faced, explaining that the trials they endured because of their faith were not just chance happenings. On the contrary, suffering for the truth was to be expected, and they were not to be shaken by their afflictions. He could offer this encouragement with authority because he too had suffered many afflictions, and so understood their tribulations and the forces they were contending against.
Next, the Apostle comforted the saints about Christians who had died, and reminded them of the hope of the Lord’s coming. Paul’s instruction on the topic of Christ’s return in this portion of the epistle is one of the most significant theological contributions of 1 Thessalonians.
At the conclusion of his letter, Paul gave a number of brief principles about Christian living. While believers waited for the coming of the Lord, he instructed them to live quiet, holy, and productive lives in all godliness and dignity. They were to encourage and help one another, to be subject to governing authorities, and to be patient and kind to everyone.
Response to accusations
Along with good news concerning the Thessalonian converts, Timothy’s report to Paul included some disturbing accusations. Apparently both Paul’s integrity and his methods of ministry had come under fire by the Jewish religious leaders who wanted to discredit him and what he taught. In chapter 2, the Apostle carefully refuted these false accusations. Paul knew he had been following God in what he preached, so he stated firmly, “Our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile, but as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
Paul saw his responsibility of preaching as a great privilege; he was honored by the fact that God had entrusted him with this role. Thus, even when opposition came, his focus was to please God, not men. He knew he was accountable to God alone, so he could deal with the false accusations leveled against him in the right way, with a focus on protecting these new converts from having their faith shaken.
Verses 3-4 suggest that the accusations against Paul included that he was deluded about his beliefs, that he had taught among the Thessalonians for his own selfish advantage, and had used flattering words and his position as an Apostle to obtain financial assistance from his hearers. It appears that Paul was also accused of indifference toward the church. His enemies pointed out that the Apostle had not returned to Thessalonica, using that fact to infer that he had no real care for his converts and no intention of visiting them again.
This was certainly a frontal attack upon Paul’s ministry! However, the Apostle’s response to these accusations demonstrated his integrity and character, and provide an example for believers of every era who are confronted with opposition for their faith. His reaction models what he meant when he urged the Thessalonians to “walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12). Later in the epistle, the Apostle went on to give many instructions regarding Christian conduct, but perhaps they all could be summed up by the admonition to “walk worthy.” Paul himself lived justly and blamelessly, and because his own life and message were a consistent example, he could exhort these new followers of Christ to walk worthy of God.
In chapter 3, as a continuation of his rebuttal of the false accusations, Paul explained his reasons for sending Timothy back to Thessalonica. First, he wanted to establish the Thessalonians in the faith. The word establish means “to stabilize” or “to support an already existing structure.” He also had a desire to comfort and encourage the believers. He wanted to make sure they were surviving the attempts of Satan to derail their faith, and that his work among them had not been in vain.
Learning from Paul
The following are actions and attitudes we can learn from Paul’s example regarding how to respond to opposition and false accusation.
- Defend the Gospel. The attacks were not a personal issue for the Apostle. He was more concerned about protecting these new converts from being swayed from their faith than in vindicating himself.
- Respond with facts, not emotions. Paul met the accusation of false motives and greed by pointing to his conduct. He reminded the Thessalonians that when he was among them, he had not taken their money or been a financial burden to them. In fact, he “labored night and day” to make sure he was not imposing on them.
- Speak the truth graciously. Paul’s tone was emphatic but not harsh. He established the truth, but was not hostile or accusatory toward those who opposed him.
- Refrain from judging motives. While Paul pointed out the error of his accusers (see 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16), he did not analyze why they opposed him.
- Refuse to adopt a defeatest mentality. Though Paul had been wronged by these false accusations, he knew that God could take any situation and use it for His glory. In many of his epistles, he indicated that Christ’s followers can grow through trials.
- Guard against retaliation. Paul cautioned against seeking vengeance, instructing in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man.”
Paul’s explanation of Christ’s return is found in chapter 4, verses 13-18, and the first eleven verses of chapter 5. In his report to Paul, Timothy evidently had conveyed that confusion existed among some of the Thessalonians regarding this future event. While the little group believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and would return to earth one day to summon His own, they evidently were troubled about what would happen to their loved ones who had already passed on, supposing they would not be present at the return of the Lord and thus would miss His rewards.
Paul responded to this concern by spelling out the exact sequence of events at the Rapture. He explained that those who died with faith in Christ will arise out of their graves first and join the Lord in the air. Then, believers who are still alive will rise to meet their loved ones and Christ in the air. Together they will go to be with the Lord forever.
It is not hard to imagine the comfort Paul’s words must have been to these new converts. Grief over the passing of loved ones is something that individuals of every era and culture understand. However, Paul said those who are followers of Jesus do not sorrow as those who have no hope, because they know that one day they will be reunited with those who have gone before.
The believer’s life
In the closing portion of his epistle to this young church, Paul instructed the believers to “comfort yourselves together, and edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). In the original Greek, the word translated edify means “to build up and promote spiritual growth by teaching or example.” The verb tense of both comfort and edify implies that believers have a continuing obligation to build one another up.
Schisms and division were prevalent in the ancient world of Paul’s time, and political ties only loosely held the various regions together. In the midst of a world of selfishness, Paul knew that the Gospel could knit together warring nationalities, hostile classes, and wide diversities of culture and position. Though only a short time had elapsed since Paul’s time with the Thessalonians, it was clear that love already bound these believers together, and all Paul had to do was encourage its strengthening.
The social environment in the Roman Empire was characterized by immorality, and the Thessalonians’ culture was corrupt. Paul let the believers know that even in such a society, they needed to live holy lives. Verses 15 through 22 of the final chapter contain a series of brief, pointed instructions about Christian living. Paul counseled them to:
- Resist revenge. They were not to try to get even or retaliate for unkindness. (Verse 15)
- Maintain a cheerful outlook, avoiding gloom or negativity. (Verse 16)
- Keep a prayerful attitude at all times. (Verse 17)
- Be thankful, expressing gratitude to God for all He has done. (Verse 18)
- Be cautious not to grieve God’s Spirit, but rather, honor Him in word and deed. (Verse 19)
- Respect both the efforts and message of those who preach and teach. (Verse 20)
- Be judicious, and choose what is right and true. (Verse 21)
- Keep away from evil, avoiding situations where they might be subject to temptation, and refraining from actions that might lead others astray. (Verse 22)
These instructions are as applicable today as they were for those early converts in Thessalonica—a testimony to the fact that it was God Himself who inspired the writing of this epistle.
A closing exhortation and petition
In the final words of his letter, Paul expressed his fervent desire for holiness to be the hallmark of the little group of believers at Thessalonica, writing, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). He closed with a personal request for prayer, a charge to read the epistle to “all the holy brethren,” and a petition that echoed his opening greeting for the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” to be with them.