Occasion. Twenty years after the death of Jesus, and about the middle of the first century, a man sat down in the Greek city of Corinth to write a letter, and with his letter Christian literature began. Beyond a doubt a new spirit there and then began to inform the written word—that spirit which sets Christian writing apart from all other and which now so largely pervades the world's best literature.
For the writer was Paul, a Jew, brought up in the Greek city of Tarsus, a member of the pharisaic party, educated in Jerusalem to be a rabbi, but won over to faith in Christ through an experience so deep and transforming that it made him the greatest Christian missionary of the first century.
He had just been through an anxious experience. Only a few months before he had taken the momentous step of crossing from Troas into Macedonia, thus carrying the gospel from Asia, the continent of its origin, to Europe, the continent of its destiny. These first undertakings in the new field were full of promise but attended with no little difficulty. No sooner was an impression made and some success achieved than jealousy and opposition developed in town after
town, and Paul had to hasten on, leaving his work only begun.
It was so at Philippi, and it was so at Thessalonica. Jewish hostility developed, and Paul had to leave, sometimes under a cloud and at the demand of the authorities. What must have been the effect of these ignominious nocturnal departures upon the little groups of believers that he had been able to gather in the course of four or five weeks? He could not help being anxious over that question, as he went on to Berea and later, when the old hostility which had forced him out of Thessalonica drove him on to take refuge in Athens.
In his anxiety over the little groups he had so precipitately abandoned, he sent his two lieutenants back to see them, explain his disappearance, and conserve what might remain of his work in Thessalonica and Philippi. Acts speaks as though he sent them back when he left Berea and set out for Athens (Acts 17:14, 15). Paul's own words in I Thess. 3:1, 2 are not incompatible with this, though they sound rather as if his messengers did not leave him until he had reached Athens: "I made up my mind to stay behind alone at Athens and I sent my brother Timothy, .... to strengthen you in your faith, and encourage you not to be led astray, any of you, in all these troubles."
From Athens, Paul soon proceeds to Corinth, and there finds employment at his trade, resumes his work of preaching, and is soon embarked upon one of the great ministries of his life. But his thoughts still turn anxiously back to Thessalonica, and doubtless Philippi
too. What is going on there? Have his few converts retained their new faith and held together in a little church? Or have they been disheartened and disillusioned by the abrupt flight of their teacher and returned to their old religious and social affiliations?
It made an enormous difference to Paul and his prospects. For if a missionary must settle down in a Greek city for years of steady labor to establish a Christian church there, it will be a slow business taking the gospel to the Greek world. But if a few weeks' work in a place will suffice to form a lasting Christian group in it, the gospel is going to go through the Greek world like wildfire. Which is it to be? Timothy and Silvanus will give the answer when they come down from Macedonia to rejoin Paul.
The books of the New Testament are most of them definitely occasional in character; they connect themselves immediately with some particular situation or event that called them forth. This is true of the First Letter to the Thessalonians. It states its occasion very specifically and crisply. Timothy has just come back to Paul, 3:6, brought him good news of their faith and love, and told him how kindly they think of him and that they are just as anxious to see him as he is to see them.
So the news, when at last it comes, is good news—the very news Paul has been so anxiously hoping for. Not only are his apprehensions about his new Christian friends at Thessalonica relieved, but his hopes for the whole Greek mission are brightened. Paul is immensely encouraged. He can really live once more,
now that he knows they are standing firm in the Lord. No doubt Silvanus brought equally good news from Philippi. The Philippians seem always to have been a comfort and stay to Paul, and we cannot help wishing we had the letter he must have written them at the same time that he wrote I Thessalonians.
In his relief and gratitude Paul sits down and dictates a letter, probably to one of those public letter-writers that were to be found on every hand, in eastern cities especially, in the Greek world. Sometimes his amanuenses were brothers in the church; "I, Tertius, who write this letter, wish to be remembered to you as a fellow Christian," Rom. 16:22. Paul had a way of adding a few words in his own hand, which looked large and awkward beside the swift, regular hand of the professional letter-writer. Paul felt this. "See what large letters I make when I write to you with my own hand!" he says to the Galatians, 6:11. But the body of all his letters was written by the professional writer, to whom Paul dictated it, sentence by sentence.
Contents. So we may picture the apostle, after a long day spent at his trade in Aquila's shop, seated by his amanuensis or pacing to and fro and pouring out the paragraphs of his letter in his animated style, almost as though the Thessalonians were right before him. It is a classic of Christian friendship. He wonders now that he ever doubted the steadfastness of the Thessalonian brothers. When he recalls the welcome they gave his preaching when he first appeared in Thessalonica, the way they followed his example, and
what we should call the Thessalonian revival that broke out there during his short stay, he can only thank God for them. He should never have had any doubts about them. Their acceptance of the gospel he had preached to them had been so spontaneous and joyful that it had become famous all over Greece, and Paul was known as the man who had led them in it.
For though our message brought you great trouble, you welcomed it with joy inspired by the holy Spirit, so that you set an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Greece. For the Lord's message has rung out from you not only over Macedonia and Greece, but the story of your belief in God has gone everywhere, so that we never need to mention it. For when people speak of us, they tell what a welcome you gave us, and how you turned from idols to God [1:6-9].
These extraordinary words conjure up a remarkable picture of what the Thessalonian response to Paul's preaching had done for his work in this new continent he was just entering. The story of it had gone before him, paving the way for him in the Greek cities about the Aegean, 1:2-10.
But the news Timothy has brought from Thessalonica is not all good. The old stock slanders so often brought against the bearers of a new religion have appeared there and are faithfully reported to Paul. Nowadays, when a man appears in a modern community with a new religion, he is generally suspected of being either immoral, mercenary, or inordinately
vain, and just these slanders were being circulated in Thessalonica about Paul.
Paul often had occasion to defend himself against charges of one kind or another, and most of his letters contain an apologia, long or short. The second paragraph of I Thessalonians is such a defense.
Our appeal does not rest on a delusion, nor spring from any impure motive; there is no fraud about it. . . . . We never used flattery, as you know, or found pretexts for making money, as God is our witness. We never sought praise from men, either from you or anyone else, though as Christ's apostles we might have stood on our dignity. We were children when we were with you; we were like a mother nursing her children. . . . . You remember, brothers, how we toiled and labored. We worked night and day, when we preached the good news to you, in order not to be a burden to any of you. You will testify, and God will, how pure and upright and irreproachable our relations were with you who believed [2:3-10].
The Thessalonian Christians have indeed had their difficulties since Paul's visit. Their acceptance of a new faith had cost them a great deal. It had meant breaking off old and valued social and religious associations. But the Thessalonians had felt that the gospel was peculiarly a message from God himself, and that conviction had fortified them to endure such misunderstanding and ill-treatment as had overtaken them. To their old friends and neighbors they now appeared as renegades, just as the Christian Jews had seemed to their people. Paul rejoices that the Thessalonians had stood fast.
For you, brothers, followed the example of God's churches in Judea that are in union with Christ Jesus, for you in your turn had to bear the same ill-treatment from your neighbors as they did from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and persecuted the prophets and us; [2:14, 15].
Paul has thus far dealt with three matters: his relief at the Thessalonians' steadfastness, 1:2-10; the slanders against him that have been circulated among them, 2:1-12; and the annoyance to which they have been subjected because of their change of religion, 2:13-16. He now admits the great anxiety he had felt about them, his desire to revisit them in person, and the suspense he felt while he waited for Timothy to go to them and bring him word of their state, 2:17-3:10. For when the suspense had become unendurable, he had sent Timothy to them to strengthen and encourage them:
That was why, when I could not bear it any longer, I sent to find out about your faith, for I was afraid that the tempter might have tempted you and all our labor might be lost. But now that Timothy has just come back to me from you, and brought me good news of your faith and love, and told me how kindly you think of me, and that you long to see me just as much as I long to see you, I feel encouraged, brothers, about you, in spite of all my distress and trouble, at your faith, for now I can really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. For how can I thank God enough for you, for all the happiness you make me feel in the presence of our God, as I pray night and day with intense earnestness that I may see your faces and supply what is lacking in your faith? [3:5-10].
This affectionate passage is followed by a great benediction:
May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus open my way to you! May the Lord make your love for one another and for all men wide and full like my love for you, so that your hearts may be strong and faultlessly pure in the sight of our God and Father, when our Lord Jesus Christ appears with all his saints! [3:11-13].
This concludes the first part of the letter.
It has sometimes been said that Paul regarded the Christian salvation as an opus operatum, a thing completed or at least accomplished in the very act of faith. In a sense this is true. And yet in every letter Paul shows his solicitude that Christian believers should not rest content with this assurance but strive to develop their moral sense and perfect their characters in every possible way. Toward the end of each letter he turns to practical moral admonition, in no dry formal way but with great vitality and vigor.
In just this way he now appeals to the Christians in Thessalonica to go on trying to live in such a way as to please God. He does not suggest that they are not doing this already; they are doing it, only they must do it more and more, 4:1, 2.
Nothing in the pagan system was more in need of elevation than the relation between the sexes, and Paul's first admonition has to do with marriage. It must be honorably and purely entered into and sacredly respected, 4:3-8.
The early Christians were always ready to help one
another in material ways, when any need arose, and the Thessalonians are cheerfully doing this. But some of them are in danger of taking advantage of this disposition and of relaxing their own efforts to support themselves. Paul has something to say to each of these groups at Thessalonica, 4:9-12.
The Thessalonians, like Paul, confidently expected the early return of Jesus on the clouds of heaven in messianic state. But they feared that their friends who did not survive until then might miss the glorious experience of witnessing it. Paul reassures them. In his picture of the messianic advent those who had fallen asleep were to rise first and be ready to meet the Lord at his coming, 4:13-18.
When all this was to be, was of course the great question. Paul can say only that it will be when it is least expected. Their task is to be vigilant and composed. If they are armed with faith and love and the hope of salvation, the Day when it comes will not take them unprepared, 5:1-11.
Paul bespeaks respect and co-operation for the leaders of the Thessalonian church, 5:12-13. He also has something to say to these same leaders, 5:14. And then, in a wonderful series of crisp appeals, he gives us glimpses of the Christian life as he saw it. "Treat everyone with kindness. Always be joyful. Never give up praying. Thank God whatever happens. . . . . Do not stifle the Spirit," 5:15-22.
A second benediction, with greetings to all, and then a third conclude the letter, 5:23-28. Verses 25-28 probably form the concluding paragraph in Paul's own hand which, in II Thess. 3:17, he says is his mark in every letter.
Problems. New light has been thrown upon the date of I Thessalonians by the letter of Claudius to the city of Delphi imperfectly preserved in an inscription, fragments of which have been unearthed at Delphi. It mentions Gallio as proconsul of Greece (Achaea) at the time of Claudius' twenty-sixth imperatorial acclamation, which was not earlier than the closing months of A.D. 51 or later than the spring of 52; for he received his twenty-seventh such acclamation before August 1 of A.D. 52. That is, Gallio was proconsul during some part of the time between summer, 51, and summer, 52. But since proconsuls came out about June and held office for one year, his incumbency must have been from June of 51 to June of 52.
The reference to Gallio in Acts 18:12-17 reads as though he had only recently arrived in Corinth, whereas Paul's stay there is nearly over; "Paul stayed some time longer, and then bade the brothers goodbye and sailed for Syria," Acts 18:18. But he had spent a year and a half in Corinth. If Gallio came to his province in the summer of 51—the natural time for him to arrive—and Paul had been there eighteen months, Paul must have arrived in the winter of 50.  We have seen that he wrote I Thessalonians very soon after his
 As Deissmann puts it, "If Gallio entered on his office in the middle of the summer of 51, and if the accusation of Paul by the Jews took place soon afterwards, then since he had already been working for approximately eighteen months in Corinth, Paul must have come to Corinth in the first months of the year 50, and left Corinth in the late summer of the year 51" (Paul, p. 282).
arrival. We can therefore say with a good deal of confidence that it was written in the spring of A.D. 50. It is a matter of no little satisfaction to be able to date so closely the earliest of Paul's letters and the first book of the New Testament.
Some scholars have felt that Galatians must be given the honor of being the earliest of the letters of Paul that has come down to us, instead of I Thessalonians. But, while McGiffert has wisely warned us against acting as though we possessed a complete file of Paul's letters, and hence knew the ebb and flow of his thoughts and interests with any continuity and fulness, yet it is hard to understand Paul's neglect of the Judaizing problem in I Thessalonians, if it had risen so acutely and so recently in Galatia as would have been the case if Galatians had been written only a year of two before. We can see the overhang of the Galatian and the Corinthian conflicts in Romans, written some years after the trouble in Galatia and very soon after that in Corinth, and if Paul had had his trouble with the Galatians only a few months or a year or two before, we should expect some reminiscence of it to appear in I Thessalonians, as it does long after in Romans. Since it does not, we may rest assured that the Galatian controversy has not occurred and Galatians has not been written.
People used to approach the New Testament for its contribution to theology; that was their main interest and concern. But now we are interested in all it has to teach us about early Christian life and thought. All the problems, situations, emotions, and aspirations of
that amazing age are of interest and of value to us. The New Testament has far more than a theology for us.
And, so considered, this first book of the New Testament is of wonderful interest and worth. What light it throws upon the relations between this first great missionary and his converts! His attitude to them is not in the least official or perfunctory. He and they are friends, and friends in a new and particularly Christian sense, for they are all friends of Christ, members of one great household of God. Paul does not say this in I Thessalonians, but the friendship and kinship in Christianity which were afterward expressed by Paul, and later by John, are unmistakably here. I Thessalonians is a great document of Christian friendship. Here, already, at the beginning of Christian literature, is that church life which we all know so well, which is unlike any other social relationship in the world, being based upon self-forgetting devotion to the good of all. A new kind of friendship had come into the world.
Deissmann, Adolf. Paul (2d ed.; New York, 1911), pp. 261-86.
Dobschutz, Ernst Von. Die Thessalonicher-Briefe (Gottingen, 1909).
Frame, James E. Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (New York, 1912).
Milligan, George. St. Paul's Epistles to the Thessalonians (London, 1908).
Go to the Table of Contents for An Introduction to the New Testament
Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!