In the first Epistle to the Thessalonians we distinguish two parts:
I. Pauls Apologia, 1Th_1:1-10, 1Th_2:1-20, 1Th_3:1-13. The letter opens with the usual apostolic blessing and thanksgiving, 1Th_1:1-4. This thanksgiving was called forth by the fact that the apostles work in Thessalonica had not been in vain, but had resulted in a faith that was spoken of throughout Macedonia and Achaia, 1Th_1:5-10. The writer reminds the readers of his labors among them, emphasizing his suffering, good moral behavior, honesty, faithfulness, diligence and love, 1Th_2:1-12. He thanks God that they had received him and his message and had suffered willingly for the cause of Christ at the hands of the Jews, and informs them that he had often intended to visit them, 1Th_2:13-20. His great love to them had induced him to send Timothy to establish them and to strengthen them in their affliction, 1Th_3:1-5; who had now returned and gladdened his heart by a report of their steadfastness, 1Th_3:6-10. He prays that the Lord may strengthen them, 1Th_3:11-13.
II. Practical Exhortations and Instruction regarding the Parousia, 1Th_4:1-18, 1Th_5:1-28. The apostle exhorts the Thessalonians that they follow after sanctification, abstaining from fornication and fraud, and exercising love, diligence and honesty, 1Th_4:1-12. He allays their fears respecting the future of those that have died in Christ, 1Th_4:13-18, and admonishes the Thessalonians in view of the sudden coming of Christ to walk as children of the light that they may be prepared for the day of Christ’s return, 1Th_5:1-11. After exhorting the brethren to honor their spiritual leaders, and urging them to warn the unruly, to comfort the feeble-minded, to support the weak, and to practice all Christian virtues, the apostle closes his Epistle by invoking on the Thessalonians the blessing of God, by expressing his desire that the Epistle be read to all the brethren, and with the usual salutations, 1Th_5:12-28.
1. This Epistle is like that to the Philippians one of the most letter like of all the writings of Paul. It is, as Deissmann says, “full of moving personal reminiscences.” The practical interest greatly predominates over the doctrinal; and though the polemical element is not altogether absent, it is not at all prominent. The letter is primarily one of practical guidance, instruction and encouragement, for a faithful, persecuted church, whose knowledge is still deficient, and whose weak and faint-hearted and idlers greatly need the counsel of the apostle.
2. Doctrinally I Thessalonians is one of the eschatological Epistles of Paul. It refers very little to Christ’s coming in the flesh to give himself a ransom for sin, but discusses all the more his future coming as the Lord of Glory. There are at least six references to the parousia in this short letter, two of which are rather extensive passages, 1Th_1:10; 1Th_2:19; 1Th_3:13; 1Th_4:13-18; 1Th_5:1-11; 1Th_5:23. This doctrine is at once the impelling motive for the exhortations of the apostle, and the sufficient ground for the encouragement of his readers, who expected the return of Christ in the near future.
3. The Epistle never appeals to the Old Testament as an authority, and contains no quotations from it. We find a reference to its history, however, in 1Th_2:15, and probable reminiscences of its language in 1Th_2:16; 1Th_4:5-6; 1Th_4:8-9; 1Th_5:8. The language of 1Th_4:15-17 shows some similarity to 2Es_5:42, but the thought is quite different.
4. The style of this letter is thoroughly Pauline, containing an abundance of phrases and expressions that have parallels in the other Epistles of Paul, especially in those to the Corinthians. Comparing it with the other polemical writings of the apostle, we find that it is written in a quiet unimpassioned style, a style, too, far more simple and direct than that of Ephesians and Colossians. There are 42 words peculiar to it, of which 22 are not found elsewhere in the New Testament, and 20 are, but not in the writings of Paul.
The external testimony in favor of the Pauline authorship is in no way deficient. Marcion included the letter in his canon, and the Muratorian Fragment mentions it as one of the Pauline writings. It is contained in the old Latin and Syriac Versions; and from the time of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian it is regularly quoted by name.
The internal evidence also clearly points to Paul as the writer. The Epistle comes to us under the name of Paul; and those that were associated with him in writing it, viz. Silvanus (Silas) and Timotheus, are known to have been Pauls companions on the second missionary journey. It is marked by the usual Pauline blessing, thanksgiving and salutation, and clearly reflects the character of the great apostle to the Gentiles. Although it has been subject to attack, it is now defended by critics of nearly every school as an authentic production of Paul.
Schrader and Baur were the first ones to attack it in 1835. The great majority of critics, even those of Baur’s own school, turned against them; such men as Hilgenfeld, Pfleiderer, Holtzmann, Davidson, Von Soden and Julicher defending the genuineness of the letter. They found followers, however, especially in Holsten and Van der Vies. Of the objections brought against the Epistle the following deserve consideration: (1) As compared with the other writings of Paul, the contents of this Epistle are very insignificant, not a single doctrine, except that in 1Th_4:13-18, being made prominent. In the main it is but a reiteration of Pauls work among the Thessalonians, and of the circumstances attending their conversion, all of which they knew very well. (2) The letter reveals a progress in the Christian life that is altogether improbable, if a period of only a few months had elapsed between its composition and the founding of the church, cf. 1Th_1:7-8; 1Th_4:10. (3) The passage 1Th_2:14-16 does not fit in the mouth of him who wrote Romans 9—11 and who was himself at one time a fierce persecutor of the Church. Moreover it implies that the destruction of Jerusalem was already a thing of the past. (4) The Epistle is clearly dependent on some of the other Pauline writings, especially I and II Corinthians. Compare 1Th_1:5 with 1Co_2:4 ;— 1Th_1:6 with 1Co_11:1;— 1Th_2:4 ff. with 1Co_2:4; 1Co_4:3 ff; 1Co_9:15 ff.; 2Co_2:17; 2Co_5:11.
The cogency of these arguments is not apparent. Paul’s letters have an occasional character, and the situation at Thessalonica did not call for an exposition of Christian doctrine, save a deliverance on the parousia; but did require words of encouragement, guidance and exhortation, and also, in view of the insinuations against the apostle, a careful review of all that he had done among them. Looked at from that point of view the Epistle is in no sense insignificant. The words of 1Th_1:7-8 and 1Th_4:10 do not imply a long existence of the Thessalonian church, but simply prove the intensity of its faith and love. Three or four months were quite sufficient for the report of their great faith to spread in Macedonia and Achaia. Moreover the very shortcomings of the Thessalonians imply that their religious experience was as yet of but short duration. In view of what Paul writes in II Corinthians and Galatians respecting the Judaeizers, we certainly need not be surprised at what he says in 1Th_2:14-16. If the words are severe, let us remember that they were called forth by a bitter and dogged opposition that followed the apostle from place to place, and on which he had brooded for some time. The last words of this passage do not necessarily imply that Jerusalem had already been destroyed. They are perfectly intelligible on the supposition that Paul, in view of the wickedness of the Jews and of the calamities that were already overtaking them, Jos. Ant. XX 2, 5, 6, had a lively presentiment of their impending doom. The last argument is a very peculiar one. It is tantamount to saying that the Epistle cannot be Pauline, because there are so many Pauline phrases and expressions in it. Such an argument is its own refutation, and is neutralized by the fact that in the case of other letters dissimilarity leads the critics to the same conclusion.
Thessalonica, originally called Thermae (Herodotus), and now bearing the slightly altered name Saloniki, a city of Macedonia, has always been very prominent in history and still ranks, after Constantinople, as the second town in European Turkey. It is situated on what was formerly known as the Thermaic gulf, and is built “in the form of an amphitheater on the slopes at the head of the bay.” The great Egnatian highway passed through it from East to West. Hence it was of old an important trade center and as such had special attraction for the Jews, who were found there in great numbers. Cassander, who rebuilt the city in 315 B. C. in all probability gave it the name Thessalonica in honor of his wife. In the time of the Romans it was the capital of the second part of Macedonia and the seat of the Roman governor of the entire province.
Paul, accompanied by Silas and Timothy, came to that city, after they had left Philippi about the year 52. As was his custom, he repaired to the synagogue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The result of this work was a spiritual harvest consisting of some Jews, a great number of proselytes (taking the word in its widest significance) and several of the city’s chief women. From the Acts of the Apostles we get the impression (though it is not definitely stated) that Pauls labors at Thessalonica terminated at the end of three weeks; but the Epistles rather favor the idea that his stay there was of longer duration. They pre-suppose a flourishing, well organized congregation, 1Th_5:12, whose faith had become a matter of common comment, 1Th_1:7-9; and show us that Paul, while he was in Thessalonica, worked for his daily bread, 1Th_2:9; 2Th_3:8, and received aid at least twice from the Philippians, Php_4:16.
His fruitful labor was cut short, however, by the malign influence of envious Jews, who attacked the house of Jason, where they expected to find the missionaries, and failing in this, they drew Jason and some of the brethren before the rulers, πολιτάχας (a name found only in Act_17:6; Act_17:8, but proved absolutely correct by inscriptions, cf. Ramsey, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen p. 227) and charged them with treason. “The step taken by the politarchs was the mildest that was prudent in the circumstances; they bound the accused over in security that peace should be kept.” (Ramsay) As a result the brethren deemed it advisable to send Paul and his companions to Berea, where many accepted the truth, but their labors were again interrupted by the Jews from Thessalonica. Leaving Silas and Timothy here, the apostle went to Athens, where he expected them to join him shortly. From the narrative in the Acts it seems that they did not come to the apostle until after his arrival at Corinth, but 1Th_3:1 implies that Timothy was with him at Athens. The most natural theory is that both soon followed the apostle to Athens, and that he sent Timothy from there to Thessalonica to establish and comfort the church, and Silas on some other mission, possibly to Philippi, both returning to him at Corinth.
From the data in Act_17:4 and 1Th_1:9; 1Th_2:14 we may infer that the church of Thessalonica was of a mixed character, consisting of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Since no reference is made in the Epistles to the tenets of the Jews and not a single Old Testament passage is quoted, it is all but certain that its members were mostly Christians of the Gentiles. Only three of them are known to us from Scripture, viz. Jason, Act_17:5-9, and Aristarchus and Secundus, Act_20:4. The congregation was not wealthy, 2Co_8:2-3; with the exception of a few women of the better class, it seems to have consisted chiefly of laboring people that had to work for their daily bread, 1Th_4:11; 2Th_3:6-12. They had not yet parted company with all their old vices, for there was still found among them fornication 1Th_4:3-5, fraud 1Th_4:6 and idleness 1Th_4:11. Yet they were zealous in the work of the Lord and formed one of the most beloved churches of the apostle.
1. Occasion and Purpose. What led Paul to write this letter, was undoubtedly the report Timothy brought him respecting the condition of the Thessalonian church. The apostle felt that he had been torn away from them all too soon and had not had sufficient time to establish them in the truth. Hence he was greatly concerned about their spiritual welfare after his forced departure. The coming of Timothy brought him some relief, for he learnt from that fellow-laborer that the church, though persecuted, did not waver, and that their faith had become an example to many. Yet he was not entirely at ease, since he also heard that the Jews were insinuating that his moral conduct left a great deal to be desired, while he had misled the Thessalonians for temporal gain and vainglory, 1Th_2:3-10; that some heathen vices were still prevalent in the church; and that the doctrine of the parousia had been misconstrued, giving some occasion to cease their daily labors, and others, to feel concerned about the future condition of those who had recently died in their midst. That information led to the composition of our Epistle.
In view of all these things it was but natural that the apostle should have a threefold purpose in writing this letter. In the first place he desired to express his gratitude for the faithful perseverance of the Thessalonians. In the second place he sought to establish them in faith, which was all the more necessary, since the enemy had sown tares among the wheat. Hence he reminds them of his work among them, pointing out that his conversation among them was above reproach, and that as a true apostle he had labored among them without covetousness and vainglory. And in the third place he aimed at correcting their conception of the Lords return, emphasizing its importance as a motive for sanctification,
2. Time and Place. There is little uncertainty as to the time and place of composition, except in the ranks of those who regard the Epistle as a forgery. When Paul wrote this letter, the memory of his visit to Thessalonica was still vivid, 1Th_1:1-10 and 1Th_2:1-20; and he was evidently in some central place, where he could keep posted on the state of affairs in Macedonia and Achaia, 1Th_1:7-8, and from where he could easily communicate with the Thessalonian church. Moreover Silas and Timothy were with him, of which the former attended the apostle only on his second missionary journey. and the latter could not bring him a report of conditions at Thessalonica, until he returned to the apostle at Corinth, Act_18:5. Therefore the Epistle was written during Paul’s stay in that city. However it should not be dated at the beginning of Paul’s Corinthian residence, since the faith of the Thessalonians had already become manifest throughout Macedonia and Achaia, and some deaths had occurred in the church of Thessalonica. Neither can we place it toward the end of that period, for II Thessalonians was also written before the apostle left Corinth. Most likely it was composed towards the end of A. D. 52.
The canonicity of this Epistle was never questioned in ancient times. There are some supposed references to it in the apostolic fathers, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Ignatius and Polycarp, but they are very uncertain. Marcion and the Muratorian Fragment and the old Latin and Syriac Versions testify to its canonicity, however, and from the end of the second century its canonical use is a well established fact. In this letter we behold Paul, the missionary, in the absence of any direct controversy, carefully guarding the interest of one of his most beloved churches, comforting and encouraging her like a father. He strengthens the heart of his persecuted spiritual children with the hope of Christ’s return, when the persecutors shall be punished for their evil work, and the persecuted saints, both the dead and the living, shall receive their eternal reward in the Kingdom of their heavenly Lord. And thus the apostle is an example worthy of imitation; his lesson is a lesson of permanent value. The glorious parousia of Christ is the cheering hope of the militant church in all her struggles to the end of time.