Seminary Viewpoints

The Message of 1 Thessalonians (Part 2)

Brian Hand | February 5, 2021
Viewpoint Blog

In part 1 of this blog post, we gathered from the historical background of the church at Thessalonica a partial statement of the book’s theme: remember and reinforce core truths of the gospel. By adding a study of word usage and the structure and logical progression to our previous study of the book, we can finalize a theme statement that expresses the message of 1 Thessalonians.

Word Usage

Admittedly, statistics relating to the vocabulary of a book have seen a fair amount of abuse by critics who have, for example, set out to disprove Pauline authorship of one book or another. However, when we are searching for the key themes of a book, vocabulary can focus our attention on the author’s primary concerns. With its approximately 1,480 words, 1 Thessalonians comprises 1.07% of the total words in the Greek New Testament. In analyzing word usage, we can pick out statistical anomalies, and we can examine semantic (meaning) clusters. In this latter case, we group words with similar meaning to see if they point to a theme. Thematic value increases in at least four instances: (1) if word clusters occur with high frequency, (2) if word clusters occur in a statistically anomalous fashion in comparison to usage in the rest of Paul, (3) if a word appears frequently in a specific grammatical form, and (4) if words or their word clusters occur in significant locations structurally. Several word clusters do, in fact, pinpoint the theme of 1 Thessalonians.

Multiple words for exhortation occur in 1 Thessalonians.1 Key words include: νουθετέω (2/4, to warn), παρακαλέω (8/109, to exhort), παραμυθέομαι (2/4, to encourage), (δια)μαρτύρομαι (2/20, to testify), παραγγέλλω (1/32, to command), παραγγελία (1/5, a command), εὐαγγελίζομαι (1/54, to proclaim), and εὐαγγέλιον (6/76, gospel). Some of these instances are statistically insignificant, since even a single use of a rare word might create a statistical “over-usage” in a short document. But the cluster of uses implies a strong tone of exhortation in this book.

In the case of the gospel the only NT books with as many or more references to the gospel are Mark (8), Romans (9), 1 Corinthians (8), 2 Corinthians (8), Galatians (7), and Philippians (9). As a statistical reference point—extrapolating the rate of usage of gospel in 1 Thessalonians to the length of a book like Romans would have resulted in 28 instances—triple that of Romans. The church recognizes the crucial role that the gospel plays in Romans (the righteousness of God in the gospel), Galatians (a defense of the gospel against Judaism and legalism), and Philippians (joy in the gospel). However, the gospel is easier to overlook in 1 Thessalonians, which is the shortest (10% shorter than even Philippians) and the earliest (with the possible exception of Galatians) of these gospel-emphasizing letters. For Paul, the gospel is a known entity with definite boundaries and content (2:2, 8, 9). He does not explain the gospel in the Thessalonian letters but refers to it as something that already “came” to the believers (1:5). Something about the gospel is crucial to the message of Thessalonians.

Another noteworthy word cluster in 1 Thessalonians conveys the idea of remembering (μνεία, μνημονεύω, οἴδατε especially in conjunction with καθώς, and προλέγω). These words emphasize information that had come to the believers previously through evangelism and teaching and that required ongoing attention. The second person plural, “you know,” is particularly instructive (see the table). In a fashion that points to the importance of remembering and reinforcing truth, Paul repeatedly and emphatically (using the intensive pronoun) references what the Thessalonian Christians know to be true.

“You Know” (οἴδατε) in 1 Thessalonians
καθὼς οἴδατε οἷοι ἐγενήθημεν [ἐν] ὑμῖν δι᾽ ὑμᾶς. (1:5)as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.
Αὐτοὶ γὰρ οἴδατε, ἀδελφοί, τὴν εἴσοδον ἡμῶν τὴν πρὸς ὑμᾶς ὅτι οὐ κενὴ γέγονεν. (2:1)For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain.
ἀλλὰ προπαθόντες καὶ ὑβρισθέντες, καθὼς οἴδατε, ἐν Φιλίπποις (2:2)But even after that we had suffered before, and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi
Οὔτε γάρ ποτε ἐν λόγῳ κολακείας ἐγενήθημεν, καθὼς οἴδατε (2:5)For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know
καθάπερ οἴδατε, ὡς ἕνα ἕκαστον ὑμῶν ὡς πατὴρ τέκνα ἑαυτοῦ (2:11)As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children
αὐτοὶ γὰρ οἴδατε ὅτι εἰς τοῦτο κείμεθα· (3:3)for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto.
προελέγομεν ὑμῖν ὅτι μέλλομεν θλίβεσθαι, καθὼς καὶ ἐγένετο καὶ οἴδατε. (3:4)we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know.
οἴδατε γὰρ τίνας παραγγελίας ἐδώκαμεν ὑμῖν (4:2)For ye know what commandments we gave you
αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀκριβῶς οἴδατε ὅτι ἡμέρα κυρίου ὡς κλέπτης ἐν νυκτὶ οὕτως ἔρχεται. (5:2)For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

So far, the word clusters tend to reinforce the theme that we suspect Paul is conveying: remember and reinforce core truths of the gospel. A final conceptual cluster unites this theme to its motivation. Paul refers to the Second Coming of Christ in every chapter of 1 Thessalonians. He holds the hope of Christ’s return before the Thessalonian church as motivation for endurance, joy, holiness, and confidence.

The Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians
And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come. (1:10, ἀναμένειν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν)
For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? (2:19, παρουσία)
To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints. (3:13, παρουσία)
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. (4:15, παρουσία)
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (4:17, ἀπάντησις)
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (5:23, παρουσία)

When this distinctive eschatological emphasis joins the primary application of 1 Thessalonians, the entire theme emerges: On the basis of Christ’s Second Coming, remember and reinforce core truths of the gospel. Without the Second Coming, there would be no foundational reason to persist in the Christian life. Without remembrance and reinforcement of the truth, the Christian hope would grow cold and the spark of obedient faith would be swallowed up by combined pressures of this world, the Devil, and our flesh. Motivation and application move together to convey the complete theme.

Structure and Logical Progression

Vocabulary clusters can show us what is present in a book, but they lack the ability to define what is missing. That requires analysis across Paul’s writings. 1 Thessalonians lacks (1) the strong tone of rebuke that we see in 1 Corinthians, (2) the strong doctrinal content of Romans, (3) or the strong ethical content of Ephesians and Colossians. Instead, an outline of the book (see the table) points to Paul’s rehearsal of basic truths that the church already knew, understood, and obeyed. There were areas of adjustment—like the warnings concerning sexual purity in 4:1–12 and the eschatological clarity that Paul brings to bear in 4:13–18—but Paul does not treat the church as lacking either in general awareness of these issues or in obedience to God’s commands.

An Outline of the Basic Structure of 1 Thessalonians 2
1. Remember Your Calling by God—1:1–5
2. Remember Your Testimony of a Transformed Life—1:6–10
3. Remember the Character of God’s Messenger—2:1–7
4. Remember the Conduct of God’s Messenger—2:8–12
5. Remember the Unity of the Faith—2:13–16
6. Remember that Absence Does Not Mean Indifference—2:17–3:5
7. Remember that Communication Demonstrates Concern—3:6–13
8. Remember That Sanctification Is a Process—4:1–12
9. Remember That Death Is Not a Victor over the Believer—4:13–18
10. Remember to Prepare Actively for Christ’s Return—5:1–11
11. Remember That the Gospel Demands Spiritual and Social Propriety—5:12–22
12. Remember the Truth of the Gospel Itself—5:23–28

Herein is the great contribution of 1 Thessalonians. Where a church is already knowledgeable concerning spiritual truth and obedient to the commands of God, God gives the admonition: On the basis of Christ’s Second Coming, remember and reinforce core truths of the gospel. Our use of this little book in our preaching and teaching ministries (as well as our personal walk with the Lord) should mimic its theme and purpose. Wherever we find genuine faith, hope, and love (1:3), we are to fan these flames with the hope of the Second Coming so that they continue to burn brightly as a testimony to the work of Christ in the gospel.

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.

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[1] For each of the following statistics, the first number represents the number of instances in 1 Thessalonians while the second represents the total number of NT uses of the word.

[2] The outline above is the core outline of a forthcoming commentary by the author and is copyrighted in terms of its use for publication. Of course, fair use, particularly in pastoral preaching ministry is permitted.