The Epistles to the Thessalonians are two letters written by the apostle Paul, which are among the earliest of Paul and of the New Testament. The major theological theme of 1 and 2 Thessalonians is the return of Christ to earth. Important as this theme is, however, the Thessalonian letters leave the reader wide-awake to the responsibilities of the present, not gazing into the future. Both epistles aim to establish and strengthen a young church in a stormy setting (1 Thessalonians 3:2, 13; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; 3:3). In neither epistle does Paul fight any grave errors in the church. In both epistles the reader feels the heartbeat of Paul the pastor as he identifies with a young congregation taking its first steps in faith.
Structure of the Epistles
Paul begins the first epistle by thanking God for the faith, hope, and love of the Thessalonians, and marveling that they have become "examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia" (chapter 1). Paul recalls his sacrificial labor for the gospel (2:1-12), and the suffering the Thessalonians endured (2:13-16). Longing to see them again (2:17-3:5), Paul expresses his relief and encouragement upon hearing Timothy's report of their well being (3:6-10). He prays for their growth in the gospel (3:11-13).
In chapters four and five Paul addresses three concerns. He reminds his converts that in sexual matters a Christian must conduct himself differently than a pagan (4:1-8). He adds a gentle reminder to work diligently and thus earn the respect of "those who are outside" (non-Christians, 4:9-12). Paul then devotes extended consideration to the most pressing questions in Thessalonica, the Second Coming of Christ Jesus (4:13-5:11).
The first letter concludes with a number of memorable exhortations and a charge to read the epistle "to all the holy brethren" (5:12-28).
Second Thessalonians is both shorter and simpler than 1 Thessalonians. Paul follows a nearly identical opening (1:1) with an assurance that when Christ returns He will punish those who persecute the Thessalonians (chapter 1). Chapter two brings Paul to the purpose of the letter -to clarify and expand his teaching on the Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11). Certain signs will precede the return of Christ, in particular, an outbreaking of lawlessness, followed by the appearance of "the man of sin," or "lawless one" (Antichrist), who will escort to their doom those who have no love for the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). In contrast to those who are perishing, believers can give thanks to God for their call to salvation (2:13-17).
Paul concludes by requesting the prayers of the Thessalonians (3:1-5) and encouraging idlers to earn their living rather than live off their neighbors (3:6-15). He ends with a benediction in his own hand (3:16-18).
Authorship and Date
The vocabulary, style, and thought of the Thessalonian correspondence are genuinely Pauline. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-3:10 Paul shares his point of view on some of the events described in Acts 16:16-18:7, thus supporting Luke's description of Paul's ministry in Acts. Both letters bear Paul's name as author (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). Paul's co-workers, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, are both mentioned along with Paul in the opening greeting of both epistles.
It is possible to date the Thessalonian letters with some precision. Paul wrote both from Corinth (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; Acts 18:5) while Gallio was proconsul (governor of a Roman province) of Achaia. We know from an inscription discovered at Delphi that Gallio ruled Corinth from May, A.D. 51, to April, A.D. 52. If Paul spent 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), and yet was brought to trial before Gallio (Acts 18:12-17), he must have arrived in Corinth before Gallio became proconsul. If he wrote to the Thessalonians shortly after leaving them, which seems probable, the letters would have to be dated in late A.D. 50 or early A.D. 51.
Paul founded the church at Thessalonica in A.D. 49 or 50 during his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-9). The church consisted of a few Jewish converts and a larger number of former pagans (1 Thessalonians 1:9; Acts 17:4). Desiring not to handicap the young church, Paul worked at his own job as a tentmaker -and at some sacrifice to himself, he adds (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12) -twice receiving aid from the ever-faithful Philippians (Philippians 4:16).
Paul's stay in Thessalonica was cut short, however, when the Jews gathered some local troublemakers and accused him before the city fathers of "turning the world upside down" by favoring Jesus as king instead of Caesar (Acts 17:1-7). This accusation was no small matter; it was a matter of treason, which in the Roman Empire was punishable by death. Not surprisingly, an uproar broke out; and Paul was escorted out of town, leaving Timothy to patch up the work (Acts 17:10, 15). Separated so suddenly from the infant church, Paul describes his feelings as one who had been "orphaned" (Greek text, 1 Thessalonians 2:17).
Once he was safe in Athens, Paul sent Timothy (who apparently had since rejoined him) back to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage believers (1 Thessalonians 3:2). When Timothy returned to Paul, who had since moved on to Corinth (Acts 18:1-5), he brought news of the love and faith of the Thessalonians. Paul was greatly relieved at this news.
In response to Timothy's encouraging report, Paul wrote the first epistle to Thessalonica. Evidently the Thessalonians were unsettled over the Second Coming of Christ, because Paul discusses the issue in both letters. In the first letter he informs then that at Christ's coming the dead in Christ must be raised first, then the living (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Since the time of Christ's coming will be as secretive as a thief's, Paul admonishes the believers to keep alert and be watchful (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Some, however, may have been too watchful, assuming that Christ would come any moment. In his second letter, therefore, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that certain events, namely, a rebellion against faith and the appearance of a "lawless one" (Antichrist), must happen before Christ returns (2 Thessalonians 2:8-9). In the meantime, Paul tells them to get back to work: "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Three themes appear in the Thessalonian correspondence: thanksgiving for their faith and example in the past; encouragement for those undergoing persecution in the present; and exhortation to further work and growth in the future.
Paul writes the epistles in the spirit of a true pastor. He is overjoyed with their enthusiastic response to the gospel (1 Thessalonians 1). He longs for the day when they will stand with him in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). At the same time, Paul is grieved at unjust charges leveled against him that his gospel is more talk than action (1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:1-8). Cut off from his flock, he is anxious for their well-being (1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5).
Paul compares himself to a nursing mother caring for her children (1 Thessalonians 2:7), and to a father working in behalf of his family (1 Thessalonians 2:9-12). He gives himself body and soul to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:8) and dares to hope that they will give themselves likewise to God (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Such is the concern of a dedicated pastor.
Paul addresses the question of the return of Christ as a concerned pastor. He reminds them that confidence in Christ's return enables believers to be patient (1 Thessalonians 1:10), creates hope and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19), and spurs them to pursue pure and blameless lives (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 5:23). Uncertainty as to when Christ will return demands alertness and watchfulness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11), but the certainty that He will return makes present trials and sufferings bearable (2 Thessalonians 1:3-11). His return will come as a surprise, like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:4); but it will not be disorderly: those who have died first in Christ will proceed first to Christ, followed by the living, "And thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
There is no mention of a MILLENNIUM, followed by a battle between Christ and Satan (Revelation 20:1-10). Paul simply states that at his coming Jesus will destroy the "lawless one" and will judge the unrighteous (2 Thessalonians 2:8-12). The end, however, will follow wide-spread rebellion and abandonment of the faith. Paul appeals for them to be levelheaded during the time of trouble and warns Christians not to despair when they see the Antichrist pretending to be God (2 Thessalonians 2:4). The schemes of "the man of sin" or "man of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:6) will be restrained until his treachery is fully disclosed, and then Christ will utterly destroy him (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
On the subject of the Second Coming, Paul assures the Thessalonians what will happen, but not when it will happen. His discussion throughout is dominated by an emphasis on practical living, rather than on speculation. The best way to prepare for Christ's return is to live faithfully and obediently now.
A Study and
I. Paul's Personal Reflections on the Thessalonians................1:1-3:13
II. Paul's Instructions to the Thessalonians................................4:1-5:28
A Study and
I. Paul's Encouragement in Persecution.........................................1:1-12
II. Paul's Explanation of the Day of the Lord.................................2:1-17
III. Paul's Exhortation to the Church...............................................3:1-18
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