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Introduction to Paul’s First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The city of Thessalonica

Thessalonica was the capital city and largest and most important city of Macedonia, with a population of 200,000. It stood on the main trade route, the Via Egnatia, which was the main highway to the east, linking Philippi and Thessalonica to Rome. Another main route from the Aegean to the Danube crossed in Thessalonica. It is still a major city today in northern Greece.

Macedonia became part of the kingdom of Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world. He dreamed of one world dominated by Greece and Greek culture. He declared that he was sent by God to unite, pacify and reconcile the whole world. The original town was called Therma, named after some hot springs. Thessalonica was built as a new city, which expanded to include Therma, and was named after Alexander's half sister, the wife of Cassander, when Alexander rebuilt the city in 315 BC.

It had its own system of government by six magistrates called "politarchs" (Acts 17:8), referred to as "city authorities" in the NRSV. This title was unique to Thessalonica in the Roman empire. Inscriptions have been found showing this title, confirming Luke's reliability as a historian. It was a free city, with no Roman troops or taxes. It was a predominantly Greek city, with a large colony of Jews, who had their synagogue. Paul chose it as a strategic centre to plant what was to become a thriving church.

The church in Thessalonica

Paul visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, together with Silas and Timothy, as described in Acts 17:1-9. Paul first went to the Jewish synagogue (17:2) as was his custom, where he argued from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for Christ to suffer and rise from the dead. This aspect of the Messiah was the most difficult for Jews to accept. He declared that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah). He spent three Sabbaths in the synagogue, when some of the Jews were persuaded, along with many devout Greeks (God-fearers) and not a few of the leading women. These were probably the wives of the most important men in Thessalonica.

God-fearers

Luke also describes these people as "devout Greeks" (Acts 17:4). These were Gentiles loosely attached to the synagogue. They were people dissatisfied with pagan polytheism and repulsed by the immorality, and attracted with the monotheism and high morality of Judaism. However circumcision and the heavy Jewish nationalism and legalism would keep them on the fringe. They would be instantly attracted to the gospel, as they had prepared hearts. Elsewhere in Acts they also responded readily to the gospel: Cornelius (10:2), in Antioch there were devout converts to Judaism (13:43), Lydia who was a worshipper of God (16:14), and devout persons in Athens (17:17).

Opposition from the Jews (Acts 17:5-9)

The Jews were jealous, because Paul had taken their God-fearers. Because they lacked influence in high places, they used the rabble to force the authorities into action. They set the city in uproar, attacking Jason's house, where Paul and Silas were staying, wanting to bring them out to the people, but without success. They dragged Jason and some brethren before the politarchs, saying that these men who turned the world upside down have come here also. They accused Jason and Paul of acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, a rival emperor to Rome, accusing Paul of disloyalty to Rome and subversive activity.

This disturbed the city people and the politarchs, who took bail from Jason and let them go. Jason probably had to guarantee Paul's good behaviour, which in practice would mean that Paul had to leave and promise that he would not continue to let Paul stay in his house. The authorities took minimum action, and caused Paul no physical hardship.

Departure (Acts 17:10-15)

Paul had to leave Thessalonica, and was sent to Beroea, where the Jews followed him. Paul went by ship to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy in Beroea. Probably Paul's original intention was to continue westwards along the Via Egnatia to the Adriatic and the cross over to Italy and Rome. In the letter to the Romans, Paul expresses his intention to visit Rome, but was prevented (Rom 1:13,15,22). Paul must have left Thessalonica reluctantly, as he had not given the converts enough teaching for them to be established in the faith and had left them to face the inevitable hostility and opposition. Paul was deeply concerned about his converts in Thessalonica and longed to have news from them.

While at Athens, Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica to check the condition of the church (1 Thess 3:1-2), Paul was left alone in Athens, and was waiting impatiently. He moved on to Corinth (Acts 18:5), where Timothy brought good news of their growing faith and strong affection for Paul (1 Thess 3:6). Paul was filled with thankfulness that the church was standing firm and spreading the faith in the face of persecution. The first three chapters of 1 Thess are filled with thanksgiving, because the problems in the church were not as great as Paul feared.

We know the names of some of the Thessalonian Christians. Aristarchus and Secundus were with Paul on his return to Jerusalem on the third missionary journey, when he carried the collection for the saints (Acts 20:4). Aristarchus also accompanied Paul on his journey to Rome (Acts 27:2). Demas later deserted Paul in Rome and returned to Thessalonica, which may have been his home town (2 Tim 4:10).

How long was Paul in Thessalonica?

From Acts 17, we see that Paul spent three Sabbaths in the Jewish synagogue. The question is, was he expelled from the city after three weeks? In Acts, a three week stay looks probable, with a ministry to Jews, Greeks and women in the synagogue, where he reached socially prominent people. Paul was expelled from the synagogue, and formed a new community with the new converts. The thrust of his mission would then change to the market place and streets, where many Greeks were converted. The Jews then started to oppose Paul and caused his expulsion and even pursued him to Beroea and caused trouble there.

The first letter to the Thessalonians may indicate a longer stay, during which a predominately Gentile congregation was established. Paul recalls how they turned to God from idols (1:9), describing their conversion from a Gentile background. Acts and Thessalonians may form complementary, rather than contradictory accounts. It is possible that there is a time gap between Acts 17:4 and 17:5. Paul worked for a living as a tent maker in Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:7-11), and received at least one gift from Philippi (Phil 4:16), so he was probably there more than three weeks.

Occasion of 1 Thessalonians

Paul had been hindered (by Satan) from making a return visit to Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:18). This could be part of the bail condition taken from Jason by the Politarchs, that Paul would not return. Paul expressed his thanksgiving and joy at the progress of the church, for their faith and love (1:2, 3:6). It appears that he defended himself against accusations from some people in the church, who were saying that Paul didn't care for them, he had left them to suffer, or that he preached the gospel for money, or that he was pleasing men (2:1-12). In response he emphasises that he wanted to come back but was prevented (2:18). He encouraged the church who faced opposition from the Jews (2:14), and assured them of is genuine concern for them, he was longing to see them (2:17, 3:6). He warned them against any return to heathen practices, especially fornication and encouraged them in the process of sanctification (4:1-8).

He answered three questions from the church brought by Timothy (4:9,13, 5:1). Each response is introduced with the words, "now concerning". The first is about brotherly love. He rebuked some people in the church for idleness and exhorted them to work (4:11). They probably had a wrong understanding of the second coming of Christ. They were not working and instead were waiting with great expectancy for the imminent second coming. The second question is about the parousia and the condition of believers who have died before the second coming. The third question was about the timing of the second coming. Paul urged them to watchfulness in the expectation of a sudden return of the Lord (5:1-11).

Date

The date of the letter is fairly certain. After Timothy returned to Paul from Thessalonica, Paul wrote back immediately. Paul was in Corinth (Acts 18:1-5), the only time where we know Paul was with both Timothy and Silas after his visit to Thessalonica. This was during the rule of Gallio as Proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12). An inscription found in 1905 in Delphi shows that Gallio took office in the summer of AD 51. 1 Thessalonians would then have been written sometime during AD 50 or 51, making it Paul's earliest letter after Galatians.

Occasion of 2 Thessalonians

The first letter seems to have been successful in removing the accusations against Paul, as there is no mention of them in the second letter. The second letter primarily addresses misconceptions about the second coming and idleness. Paul's teaching in the first letter that the day will come like a thief, and urging watchfulness (1 Thess 5:2-6) had been misunderstood. An unhealthy situation had become worse. Many people did nothing but sit around, watch and wait. They thought that the second coming was so imminent that there was no point in working.

In the second letter, Paul explains that certain things must come first (2 Thess 2:3-12). Either, his original teaching had been misunderstood, taken out of context and over emphasised, or they had received a false letter (2:1). This letter was to restore the balance, calm the hysteria and excited idleness, calling them to wait patiently and work diligently.

Date of 2 Thessalonians

The second letter was also written while Paul was in Corinth, again Paul, Timothy and Silas were together. This would have been later during Paul's eighteen-month stay in Corinth, so a date of AD 51 would be a good suggestion.


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