The First Epistle to the Thessalonians, also known as Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians or simply 1 Thessalonians, is a book of the New Testament in the Christian Bible. Officially from Paul, Timothy and Silas but clearly the work primarily of Paul, it was either the first or the second of Paul's existing letters, written approximately 51-52 C.E., probably at Corinth. It was created shortly after Timothy had come to Paul from Macedonia, bringing a report on the state of the church in Thessalonika (Acts 18:1-5; 1 Thes. 3:6).
Much of the letter is personal in nature, expressing Paul's joy with the success of the young church he had founded. However, the final two chapters address serious moral and doctrinal issues. First, Paul is concerned that the Thessalonians are engaged in sexual immorality, apparently influenced by the lax moral culture of the region. Second, he urges that all members of the church should work for their living—as Paul himself did when among them—and not depend on the charity of others. Third, he is concerned that some of them have an improper dread of death and thus mourn the passing of loved ones too extremely. This prompts him to encourage the Thessalonians with a famous passage concerning the Second Coming in which he expresses his belief that many of the current generation will still be alive to "meet the Lord in the air."
Nearly all commentators recognize 1 Thessalonians as an authentic Pauline letter which provides valuable insights into the life of the early church and the evolution of Paul's theology.
Located in today's northern Greece, Thessalonika (modern Thessaloninka, Greece's second largest city) became a city of the Roman Republic in 168 B.C.E. It grew to be an important trade hub located on the Via Egnatia, a Roman road facilitating trade between Europe and Asia. The city became the capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia. Due to its key commercial importance, a spacious harbor was built by the Romans there.
According to the Book of Acts (chapter 17) the Apostle Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue at Thessalonika on three sabbaths during his first missionary journey. Several Jews and "a large number of God-fearing Greeks"—Gentiles associated with the synagogue—were persuaded by his preaching, including a number of "prominent women." A jealous mob sought to lay hands on Paul and his companions, and charges were brought to the Roman authorities that he preached loyalty to a king other than Caesar. Paul left Silas and Timothy in the region to complete his work and escaped to Athens. He states that Timothy had returned from Thessalonika before the writing of I Thessalonians (1 Thess. 3:6). Acts 18:5 indicates that when Timothy returned from Macedonia to Paul, the apostle was at Corinth. The news brought to Paul by Timothy is traditionally believed to be on the occasion of 1 Thessalonians, and this scenario indeed seems plausible. The date is usually thought to be around 51 C.E.
The letter begins with a salutation from its authors—Paul, Silas, and Timothy—and thanksgiving. The fact that the Thessalonians "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God," gives the writers particular joy (1:1-10). It then proceeds to recount past interactions with the Thessalonian church. The authors emphasize their physical labor and self-sufficiency: "We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you." The church is praised for is endurance of persecution by pagan authorities, which the writers compare with the Judean church's treatment by the Jews. Paul had hoped to visit the church personally but was prevented from doing so by "Satan." (2:1-20) Timothy's visit to the Thessalonian church as Paul's emissary is recounted, and he has "brought good news about your faith and love." The authors, especially Paul, express their fervent wish to come themselves again to Thessalonika soon (3:1-13).
|“||Each of you should learn to control his own body... not like the heathen.||”|
Here Paul and his co-writers turn to the real reasons for their writing. First and foremost is the issue of sexual immorality. Church members must "control their own bodies" God calls Christians to a holy life, and sexual sins will be punished. Moreover, members of the church must work with their hands so as to "win the respect of outsiders" and "not be dependent on anybody." Finally, Christians must not mourn for those who have died, but should have confidence in the resurrection of the dead (4:1-18). In a famous passage, members are advised to encourage each other in this hope and in the expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus:
The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (4:16-17)
The time of these events remains unknown, for Christ will come "like a thief." It is therefore incumbent on Christians to remain watchful and self-controlled, like spiritual soldiers, putting on "love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet." (5:1-11) The membership must respect the local leaders "who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you." A final warning is given against idleness, followed by an admonition to kindness, joy, love, prayer, and the avoidance of evil. The letter closes with several benedictions (5:12-28).
The vast majority of New Testament scholars, critical and traditionalist alike, hold 1 Thessalonians to be authentic, with dissent from this position being minuscule at best. The letter is of great interest to scholars since it is perhaps the earliest New Testament writing, providing a revealing first-hand glimpse into the real life of the early church. Paul's oft-expressed emphasis on the principle of Christian freedom is noticeably missing from the letter. The Thessalonian church, comprised largely of Gentiles, apparently faces no temptation for the "Judaizers" Paul battles against in other letters. The problem here is not that the Thessalonians follow a slavish obedience to the Mosaic law that contradicts their freedom in Christ. It is that they too free and are not committed to the commandments against adultery and fornication. Paul thus does not need to remind them—as he does the Galatians—that they are no longer under the law. He does need to teach them, however, that sexual sin will be punished by God. Whether the Thessalonians' libertinism was due to a particular heresy, as was the case in some other cities, is not clear. They may simply have been influenced by the relative laxity of pagan moral standards compared to the Jewish context of the Judean churches.
Paul's praise for the Thessalonians' endurance of persecution is also revealing. Although he gives few details, he mentions that the Thessalonians have been treated by their countrymen in a similar way to the manner in which the Jews of Judea treated the Judean church. He says in that context that the Jews "drove us out," probably referring to being expelled from the synagogues or possibly to Jewish-Christian leaders having to flee Judea for fear of arrest. (According to the Book of Acts, Paul himself had worked as an agent of the high priest to imprison leaders of "the Way.") Paul condemns the Jews not only because they "killed the Lord Jesus" but because "they displease God and are hostile to all men." In an unfortunately un-Christ-like moment, he does not forgive or love these enemies, but declares with satisfaction: "The wrath of God has come upon them at last" (2:16), a probable reference either to a Roman massacre of Jews in Jerusalem or to an expulsion of Jews from Rome, both of which occurred in 49 C.E.
In addition to revealing the above details about the life of the Thessalonian church and Paul's own hard feelings toward his fellow Jews, 1 Thessalonians also provides a glimpse into the expectation of the early church regarding the Second Coming. Paul makes it clear that he expects that many of the current generation will still be alive when Christ returns, for: "we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord... will be caught up together with (the dead) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." (4:15-17) Such imminent eschatological hope was still strong at this point in Paul's spirituality. The theme of Christ's coming would be less strongly expressed, if at all, in many of his later letters.
It is also instructive to contrast Paul's work ethic in Thessalonians to the attitude of the Gospels. Jesus commands his disciples not to work, but seek the Kingdom of God first. They are to be like the lilies of the field, not worrying about what to eat or wear (Matt. 6:24-28). He tells them to leave their fishing nets and follow him to become "fishers of men" (Matt. 4:19), to sell all they own and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:21), to live off the charity provided by others (Luke 10), and in Matthew's case to leave his tax collector's profession and become a disciple (Mark 2:14). In Acts, the Jerusalem Christians practiced a form of communism—"selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." (Acts 2:45) Whether these standards were meant to be only temporary measures or a permanent lifestyle, Paul recognized that they were impractical in the context of the cultures in which he was working. Even the hope of the imminent Second Coming did not distract him from the responsibility of supporting himself through labor—a responsibility he insisted was universal.
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