Introductory Issues in 1 Thessalonians
Absence of Scripture
Unusual for a letter from PaulA Christian missionary who once persecuted the church More, 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 JesusJesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection are God’s saving act for humanity More 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 LordThe Day of the Lord, in prophetic writing, is the day of judgment when God will intervene directly in world affairs. As described in Zephaniah, for instance, God will sweep everything away. In Matthew’s gospel God is described as gathering the elect on the day… More that is unpredictable: it “will come like a thief in the night” (5:2).
Paul’s pastoral presence
People often characterize the ApostleDerived from a Greek word meaning “one who is sent,” an apostle is a person who embraces and advocates another person’s idea or beliefs. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus called twelve apostles to follow and serve him. Paul became an apostle of Jesus… More 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 TimothyThe companion on Paul’s later journeys for whom two pastoral epistles are named More 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 SilasChristian missionary who was imprisoned with Paul at Philippi More (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 GentileA gentile is anyone who is not Jewish. The term, which is derived from words that the Bible uses to denote the “nations” of the world, reflects beliefs that God had designated Israel as a nation that would be distinct from others, and a blessing… More 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 EmpireThe region we today call Palestine and Israel was under Roman rule during the time of Jesus and the early church. The Roman Empire was in its ascendancy during the first century, making it the most powerful political and military force on earth. More, 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.
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 sanctificationSanctification means to be set aside for a special purpose. The coming of the Holy Spirit sanctified the disciples and the people of God and made it possible for believers to grow in grace through the covenant of their baptism. More (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).