In attempting to summarize the single message of this epistle, we encounter difficulty. This letter is a good example of Paul as pastor, instructing the rather young church of Thessalonica how to deal with specific problems that arose in her midst.
THE CHURCH AT THESSALONICA
Paul visited Thessalonica for the first time during his second missionary journey. The city had already had an illustrious history. Its name was chosen by Cassander in 315 B.C. and named after his wife, Thessalonica, daughter of Philip II, stepsister of Alexander the Great. It was made the capital of Macedonia in 146 B.C. by the Romans. In the struggle within the Roman republic, Thessalonica sided with Antony and Octavian, 42 B.C., and subsequently was made a free city. Its main attraction was its harbor on the Aegean Sea and it served as a station on the East-West highway from the Far East to the Adriatic Sea. It prospered with business and shipping, numbering about 200,000 citizens when Paul arrived.
From Acts 17 and this letter to the Thessalonians, we learn something about Paul’s missionary labors there and how the church was organized. Leaving Philippi, Paul and his traveling companions passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and came to Thessalonica. There he visited the Jewish synagogue for three Sabbaths (Acts 17:2). We should take note of the fact that Thessalonica was a “free city,” hence the Jews sought residence there and were able to engage in business and have their own synagogue. This was in contrast to Philippi, a Roman military town. Paul showed the Jews that the Christ he preached was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, the promised Messiah (Acts 17:3, 4). Some of these Jews believed in Christ. Along with them were a goodly number of Greeks and proselytes, including some of the women of social standing. Some of the men converts mentioned later included Aristarchus, Secundus, and probably Gaius (Acts 20:4,Acts 19:29).
Paul’s labors were cut short when there was an uprising among the people. The Jews were jealous of the fact that they were outnumbered by the God-fearing Greeks. With the help of some of the most vile citizens, the Jews organized an attack upon Paul. They surrounded the house of Jason, intending to take Paul and his companions. However, they were not there. According to Acts 17, the Jews took Jason and certain of the brethren of the congregation to the authorities and laid charge against them. They accused them of consorting with men who caused public unrest and defied Roman law by claiming that Jesus was king. They had no proof, so the authorities required of Jason and the brethren “security” (Acts 17:9), evidently including a pledge that they would send Paul away in order to prevent any further public strife.
How long had Paul labored in Thessalonica? Some scholars conclude that the reference to “three Sabbaths” means that they were there for only three weeks. This would not coincide, however, with other facts that we learn. According to I Thessalonians 19, Gentiles were added to the church. For them to be converted from heathen idolatry to the Christian faith would involve more than Paul preaching in a Jewish synagogue for three Sabbaths. In addition to this, Paul makes mention of his laboring, in all likelihood in tent making, in order to earn his own way lest he be accused of making money by preaching (II Thess. 3:8). The most convincing proof of a longer stay is found inPhilippians 4:16 in which he tells the Philippians that they sent money to him twice while he labored in Thessalonica. All of this leads us to conclude that Paul labored there at least for months. Ramsey is quoted in I.S.B.E. as suggesting that Paul was there from December A.D. 50 until May A.D. 51.
What do we know about the congregation at Thessalonica? From this letter it is apparent that the church was composed mainly of Gentile converts, who at one time practiced idolatry. “Ye turned unto God from idols” (I Thess. 1:9). They were dear to the heart of Paul, for he mentions how he wanted to come unto them more than once, but Satan hindered him (I Thess. 2:18, 3:10, 11). He makes special mention of their devotion to God and how the truth was spoken by them to others in Macedonia and Achaia. As a result of this, they have a reputation of being strong in their faith (I Thess. 1:8). This is remarkable when we consider that they were converted from heathendom only a few months earlier. Even the problems Paul deals with in this letter indicate that they struggled to be faithful, and Paul sought to help them as a young pastor would seek the good of his flock.
As usual, Paul identifies himself as the author. “Paul and Silvanus (Silas) and Timotheus, unto the church of Thessalonica” (I Thess. 1:1). No one has questioned this except more recent schools of higher criticism which have questioned everything in the I Bible. There is no substance to their opposition.
From Acts 17 we learn that Paul, Timothy, and Silas all fled from Thessalonica by night. They went to Berea, where the Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica in that they did not reject the Word offhand, but searched the Old Testament Scriptures to determine whether Paul taught the truth or not. Word soon reached Thessalonica that this was true. So hostile were the Jews there, that they sent a delegation to Berea to try to stir up the people there as well. They succeeded in driving Paul out of the city. Timothy and Silas, however, remained behind. Paul went to Athens where he preached on Mars’ Hill and labored briefly. No church was established there. Paul sent for Timothy and Silas and asked them to come down to Athens. After they rejoined Paul, all went their separate ways for a time: Timothy went to Thessalonica (I Thess. 3:2), Silas probably went to Philippi, and Paul went to Corinth. Still later, they rejoined Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5).
The spiritual condition of the church at Thessalonica is evident in this letter which was sent by Paul to them after he received this report from Timothy. In the main, the report was favorable. Yet he mentioned certain areas of concern that needed immediate attention. A list of them is given in Harrison’s Introduction to the New Testament. “First, persecution had broken out, for which Paul may have felt in a measure responsible, since its first outbreak came during his ministry in Thessalonica. At any rate, he undertook to bring encouragement to his readers, commending them for fidelity in I their trials (I Thess 2:14; I Thess 3:1-4). Second, there was a current of criticism against Paul, probably set in motion by Jewish opposition, which not only found fault with the conduct of his ministry in Thessalonica, but also, it seems, ventured to call in question his motives: This elicited from Paul a defense of his conduct (I Thess. 2:1-12). Third, the Christian standard of holiness required reiteration for the benefit of those who had so recently come out of Paganism, where moral ideals were low (I Thess. 4:1-8). Fourth, the death of certain members of the congregation created concern for their welfare by loved ones and raised questions concerning their participation in the final salvation to be attained at the coming of the Lord. Paul sought to give instruction and comfort suitable to this situation (I Thess. 4:13-18). Fifth, a tendency to restlessness and inattention to the daily tasks, which may have been due to an unhealthy attitude toward the return of Christ, needed rebuke (I Thess. 4:11). Sixth, there was some failure to understand the place of spiritual gifts and even a tendency to repress them (I Thess. 5:19).”
Taking into consideration that Paul wrote this letter from Corinth, while he labored there on his second missionary journey, we can fix the date as the year A.D. 51 or thereabout.
This can also be confirmed by secular history. We know Paul labored in Corinth during the rule of Gallio, deputy of Achaia (Acts 18:12). There is an inscription called the Delphi Inscription, which contains a letter from Emperor Claudius to Gallio, the date of which corresponds to A.D. 52. In all likelihood he arrived at his position in the summer of A.D. 51. Paul’s labor in Corinth was for eighteen months, which began in the summer of A.D. 50. This letter then was more than likely written during the year A.D. 51.
One conclusion we are able to draw from the date of composition is that this letter is the earliest of Paul’s writing and also the earliest of the New Testament Scripture. Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians about 22 years after Christ died, arose, and ascended into heaven. Also we can determine that Paul was converted about fourteen years before he wrote the letter. This tells us that the content of this letter reflects the earliest view of the gospel current in the New Testament church. Prior to his conversion, Paul had been instructed in the best Jewish schools, and after his conversion the Holy Spirit gave him understanding in all things of the truth. We can get an inside picture of that gospel by careful study of this letter.
Considering now that Paul was acting as pastor of this church at Thessalonica, two important lessons may be learned. First, in dealing with opposition to the gospel, he avoids being personal. Even when enemies insinuated that he was traveling for money, Paul does not lash out; rather he reminds them that in their persecution of him they please not God (I Thess. 2:15). One cannot help but see, when reading this epistle, on how high a plane the apostle deals with opposition. He will not needlessly stir up the church for personal vindication; rather he sets the record straight and shows that their opposition was against the gospel!
Second, it is good for one to read this letter and learn about pastoral care. Chapter two especially is full of warmth and love for the church. He carefully analyzes the important needs of the church and what difficulty they have and forthrightly answers them. In one word, spiritual honesty shines upon every page of this letter.