Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 1 Thessalonians

Absence of Scripture

Unusual for a letter from Paul, 1 Thessalonians includes no quotations of biblical texts.

Challenges faced by the Thessalonians

This letter suggests that the Thessalonian believers had a difficult existence in their city. Being a Christian in a city whose culture and atmosphere were so closely linked to Roman and Greek politics and religion would have made the members of the church appear odd, if not seditious, to some of their neighbors. There is no evidence of physical persecution, but social ostracism would be understandable. In a number of ways, 1 Thessalonians acknowledges some of the challenges that first-century believers faced in their cultural environment as they lived into their emerging sense of Christian identity. Such challenges, in various forms, have been a part of Christian existence throughout much of the church’s history all over the world.

Expecting Jesus’ immediate return

When Paul, describing the event of Jesus’ coming in 4:17, refers to “we who are alive, who are left,” he appears to indicate that he expects still to be living at the return of Jesus Christ. The first generations of Christians apparently had little reason not to assume that Jesus’ coming was imminent. Nevertheless, there is something about the day of the Lord that is unpredictable: it “will come like a thief in the night” (5:2).

Paul’s pastoral presence

People often characterize the Apostle Paul as one who writes dense theological ideas or severe instructions and injunctions. This letter to the Thessalonians reveals affectionate dimensions of Paul and the pastoral presence he sought to provide to churches via his letters. The first three chapters of 1 Thessalonians display the love and concern that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy have for these people. In 2:7 they even compare their care for the Thessalonians to a mother’s gentle nurturing of her children.

What really happened in Thessalonica? 

The book of Acts (17:1-9) describes Paul and Silas (Silvanus), but not Timothy, visiting Thessalonica for the first time, however the details of that account are not the same as those given in 1 Thessalonians. Acts describes the Christian missionaries persuading and facing hostility from some of the Jewish population in the city, while 1 Thessalonians remembers Paul and the others working with Gentile audiences (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 2:14-16).

Life in Thessalonica

Anyone traveling or shipping goods between the Black Sea to the east and the Adriatic Sea to the west probably passed through Thessalonica, which in the first century was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. The city, like most of the cities in that region of the Roman Empire, was a place where Greek culture, Roman wealth, and influences from surrounding regions came together. Paul praises the Thessalonian believers as beacons of joyful faithfulness noticed by people who dwell in Macedonia and Achaia (southern Greece), but this does not necessarily mean that the Christian community in Thessalonica was especially large or prominent within the city itself. Paul’s obvious concerns about the church’s survival may indicate that it consisted of only a small group of people or a collection of small groups. The letter provides little evidence for drawing conclusions about details of this community, such as members’ occupations or social class.

Christian identity

A major theme of the letter is Paul’s desire for the Thessalonian believers to be a distinctive community, not physically removed from their neighbors but living in ways that set them apart. For example, Paul approves of their grieving over the dead but wants them to do so in a way that expresses a distinctive hope (4:13). The letter instructs a relatively new Christian community about what it means to live as a Christian, obeying God and pursuing sanctification (holiness), which is more about distinction than it is about moral perfection. When Paul offers ethical instructions, he generally does not ask his readers to adopt specific virtues that would have been foreign to them before they had put their trust in Christ; he urges them to see how those virtues flow out of their identity as Christ’s people.

Concern for community

The rhetoric of 1 Thessalonians underscores the importance Paul attached to communal well-being. The letter addresses a community, not merely its leaders; it does not view the church as a collection of discrete individuals as much as a collective unit bound by common love (see 3:12). Likewise, several instructions focus on the importance of keeping the community a welcoming, safe, and healing environment. This is most clear in 5:14, where Paul tells the Thessalonians to admonish people who are disruptive or divisive (those words are better translations than “idlers”) and to take special, patient care of anyone who is weak or faint hearted (the word translated as “faint hearted” literally describes people with small or diminished souls).