The Message of 1 Thessalonians (Part 1)
It is relatively easy to identify key words and ideas in a book of the Bible, but it is a greater challenge to discern a cohesive theme. Without a theme, preaching may become atomistic—essentially disconnected from the rest of the book—or it may fail to convey the features that make each book of the Bible distinct. For example, since many of Paul’s letters sound similar, we want to preach a message that highlights the distinctive themes of each book without exaggerating those themes. We recognize that a good author does repeat himself when the occasion warrants while also recognizing that a good author does not merely repeat himself. He typically extends his argument or evidence in some way. If we express the unique contribution of each book of the Bible in our preaching, we will avoid the superficial and vague preaching that makes one sermon sound like every other. A robust hermeneutic helps. By applying what we know of history, word-group usage, and logical progression, we can arrive at a theme for 1 Thessalonians that recognizes its distinct contributions to the church.
History & Culture
Having been falsely accused, savagely beaten, and unjustly imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:19–40), Paul and Silas traveled roughly 75 miles southwest along the Via Egnatia to Thessalonica, the Roman provincial capital of Macedonia. When the evangelists reached the city around A.D. 50, it had already accumulated over 350 years of history. In 315 B.C., just eight years after Alexander the Great had died in Persia and the Diadochi had partitioned his empire, Cassander founded Thessalonica on the Thermaic Gulf. He named the city after his wife, Alexander’s half-sister. Unlike many other coastal cities in the Roman world—that lay along rivers and watched the slow silting of their harbors and the inexorable urban decline that followed—Thessalonica had a natural port with a harbor depth of nearly forty feet. The city grew steadily so that by the late Byzantine Era it had become the second largest city in the eastern Mediterranean. Thessaloniki remains today the second largest city within Greece, and it boasts a population over 1 million. It surpasses even Athens in its preservation of Greek heritage and is considered by some to be the cultural capital of Greece. The city also endures as an important commercial hub for Europe, with shipping that exceeds fifteen million tons per year.
When they arrived at Thessalonica, Paul and Silas found little time to rest and recuperate from their harrowing experience at Philippi. After three weeks of preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the evangelists appear to have been forced out of the synagogue and continued teaching in the city for another three to six months. Although this additional ministry duration goes beyond the three weeks explicitly mentioned in Acts, Paul’s own words in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:8–9 indicate that Acts records only the beginning and end to Paul’s ministry at Thessalonica. It does not deny the middle. It simply does not address the full duration of Paul’s stay. Paul engaged in extensive personal labor to support himself in his ministry at Thessalonica. A brief, three-week stint could hardly be a “burden” to the believers, but a lengthier ministry duration of three to six months would have required more substantial support. In addition, Paul’s expectation (reflected in his letters) that the Thessalonian believers had a thorough knowledge of doctrine reveals a greater depth of ministry than Acts explicitly records.
At the end of this period and without warning, Jewish agitators attacked Jason’s house looking for the apostles. When the mob could not find them, they accused Paul and Silas before the city rulers. The charges were as ludicrous as they were aspirational (Acts 17:1–5). Paul and Silas certainly could wish that they had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), but the charge was politically false and religiously unrealized. Like so many radical movements throughout history, the mob was guilty of the very charges that it leveled against others. But the city rulers sided with the rabble and required a bond from Jason that the apostles would cause no more trouble in the city. The believers in Thessalonica quickly helped Paul and Silas escape from the city under the cover of darkness (Acts. 17:10).
purpose of the letter
These few lines of biblical history set 1 Thessalonians in a distinct context. Paul wrote to a church that was besieged almost before it was formed. Its founders, Paul and Silas, appeared to have fled like cowards or thieves—a flight that would seem to validate the accusations of the mob. The nascent church did not have the depth of ministry training and experience that previously founded churches in Jerusalem and Antioch could draw upon. Moreover, 1 Thessalonians seems to indicate that the church was primarily Gentile (based upon its having “turned to God from idols” [1:9] and its having suffered at the hands of “your own countrymen” [2:14]); so could not fall back on a thoroughgoing knowledge of the existing Scriptures (LXX) for its theological support.
This historical background gives weight to the probability that Paul prepared to write 1 Thessalonians with a measure of anxiety. He himself testifies that “when we could no longer endure it, . . . we sent Timothy . . . to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith” (1 Thess. 3:1 NKJV). He seems to have feared:
- those who had turned to God might return to idols (1:9),
- those who knew the apostles were not self-serving might forget their self-sacrifice (2:5–10),
- those who endured persecution might finally be cowed by it (2:14–16),
- those who saw the apostles’ flight might conclude that they no longer cared (2:17–3:3),
- those who learned moral purity might slip back into the typical uncleanness of the world (4:1–8),
- those who experienced loss in the community might doubt revelation about the future (4:13–5:11), and
- those who started well in the faith might fall to the general corrosive attitudes of the world (5:12–22).
But Timothy’s report (3:6–10) allayed Paul’s fears and gave room for a slightly different tack in the letter. Instead of needing to rebuke the believers concerning sin and to reclaim them from error, Paul found the church walking in love (3:6, 12; 4:9), faith (1:3, 8; 3:6–7), and obedience (4:1–2). The Thessalonian believers were not wrapped up in failure and defection. They needed encouragement and strengthening, not sternness. With his fears allayed, Paul turned his attention to a different purpose. The letter breathes the exhortation: remember and reinforce core truths of the gospel. By itself, this theme is incomplete. It does not yet convey the key motivation that Paul used to encourage such remembering and reinforcing of the truth. But the historical situation shows that 1 Thessalonians is a book we might preach to a church that is already doing well, already serving God, and already harmonious in its assembly. There is little need for overt rebuke in such a case. Pastors should be sensitive to the spiritual temperature of God’s people and should point to the Thessalonian letters as evidence that God approves of His children as they do well. Since the danger of spiritual fatigue, self-assurance, and apostasy remains, the need also remains to remember and reinforce the truth that built up faith, love, and obedience in the first place “lest at any time we should let them slip” (Heb. 2:1).
Brian Hand (PhD) is a professor of New Testament Interpretation at BJU Seminary. Over the past twenty years he has served in ministry as a teacher, deacon, elder, and pastor. He has authored four books and numerous articles.