Introduction to 1 Thessalonians - A Letter of Thanksgiving and Hope
Around the year 51 AD, the Apostle Paul walked into the Greek city of Thessalonica with raw stripes all over his back that spoke of a fierce beating he had endured. He was with his dear co-workers Timothy and Silas, and they had just come from Philippi, where they were beaten with rods for the gospel they proclaimed; and whereas most men would be disheartened by such outrageous treatment and shrink from another possible persecution, the Apostle strengthened himself in the Lord and proceeded boldly to Thessalonica.1 It had become a habit of St Paul to first visit the synagogue of any city he entered and there convince the listeners from the scriptures that: a. the Messiah had to suffer, and b. that Jesus was the Messiah.2
Thessalonica was the New York of northern Greece: it sat directly on the sea and became a major center of trade and communication. Hence, it contained the greatest synagogue of Macedonia (northern Greece). Here St Paul and his co-workers preached for three weeks, and a large number of proselytes, Greeks, and eminent women accepted the faith.3 The Jews became jealous, as usual, that the loathsome preaching of a crucified Messiah could in three weeks win more followers than many years to the doctrines of Moses; and they went straight to the streets to form an unholy alliance with the lowest specimens of humanity they could find. They produced a "mob," as St Luke reports,4 and started a public pandemonium. The believers quietly sheltered the apostles from the violent uprising and successfully led them out of the city to continue on their second missionary journey.
The Thessalonian converts had made a special mark on the heart of the Apostle. Their quick response to the Gospel and subsequent fervor of life was doubtless a joy which lightened the many burdens of his heart. He says that he felt the love of a father for them,5 and that he nursed them as a mother does her children,6 and that he was willing to offer them not only the gospel but his very self.7 All these thoughts arose in his mind while he was in the city of Athens, about 150 miles south of Thessalonica; and he yearned for the young but vulnerable church, especially since he knew they were undergoing various trials. He had tried to visit them twice but was prevented by insuperable obstacles.8
Being intolerably agitated by his inability to meet the Thessalonian church, he decided to send the young Timothy to support and encourage them.9 And Timothy returned with the most joyous news: the church was strong in faith and love, to the point that their virtues had become famous to the believers all over Greece.10 The effect of these tidings on St Paul was an outburst of thanksgiving and relief; and he immediately sat down to write to the Thessalonians a letter to praise and instruct them—which has been divinely preserved for us in our Bible.
The first half of the letter (chs 1—3) deals mainly with the Apostle's relationship with the church. After a lengthy and heartfelt thanks to God for the Thessalonians' well-being,11 he expresses his love for them, and reminds them of how he toiled night and day with his own hands to support himself—although it was his right as an apostle to be supported by them—to free himself of any charges of selfish gain.12 He speaks of his past attempts to visit them, and he exhorts them to stand firm in the midst of their present afflictions.13 The second half (chs 4—6) is a series of exhortations. He urges them to remember that God's will was for their purity,14 to increase more and more in brotherly love,15 and to lead a quiet and peaceable life.16
Eschatological Questions: The Second Coming
1 Thessalonians was the first of all of St Paul's epistles; and it deals, ironically enough, with what we call eschatology, or "the end times"—a central theme of the letter that recurs at the end of each chapter. There had broken out at the Thessalonian church a kind of panic; since the day of their baptism, many of the believers came to see the second coming of Christ an imminent event, ready to happen any day. The blessed Advent was to be to them the solution to all their perplexities, the consolation of all their suffering. What the hopes of the birth of the Messiah was to the Jew, that the hope of His glorious return was to the early Christian. But while they waited, many of their brethren had died; and it seemed that their passing on excluded them from the kingdom which Christ would establish at His coming. Thus, they were robbed of the promise, separated from the living faithful forever! And it was cause of much sorrow among the Thessalonians.
St. Paul comforts them by a reminder of the resurrection. Did not Christ die and rise again? Then surely Jesus would bring all the departed who fell asleep "in Him" when He returned.17 He also assures them that the dead will rise at the sound of the "trumpet of God," and be joined to the Lord even before the living.18 Anyhow, they should not strain their souls by fretting about the Lord's coming, because it will be as unexpected as a thief in the night;19 and they were not children of the night but of the Day.20
"Therefore, comfort one another with these words."21
A Joyous Reception
It may easily be imagined with what rapturous cheer the arrival of such a letter would be received by a young, persecuted, and perplexed church—how many griefs it would console; how many doubts it would resolve; how much joy, and hope, and fresh enthusiasm it would inspire. In a time of such trials as the first century, each believer would accept as gold the words of the beloved teacher whose gospel had changed the whole course of their lives. It meant much for them to feel that, though he was absent in person, he was present with them in heart,22 praying for them, longing earnestly for them, and himself cheered by the news of their steadfastness and love. And if the words of St Paul shine so brightly to us even through our long familiarity, how must they have sparkled for them in their fresh originality!
And they will they sparkle for us too, if we would remember that they are not just the words of an ancient apostle spoken to a church long departed, but the very words of God, spoken to us for comfort and encouragement in our present trials. He tells us how He has chosen us,23 and affectionately longs for us,24 and that He stands with us in all our afflictions.25 And He urges us to be always joyful, always in prayer, and always thanking God in every condition, for this is His will for us in Christ Jesus.26
11 Thess 2:2
2 Acts 17:3, 4
3 Acts 17:2
4 Acts 17:5
5 1 Thess 2:11
9 3:1, 2
11 ch. 1
12 2:5, 9
15 4:9, 10
16 4:11, 12
20 5:4, 5
26 ch 5