1 Thessalonians: Introduction – 1 Thessalonians 1

Read the Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1

Authorship and Date – The book of 1 Thessalonians was written by the apostle Paul (1 Thess. 1:1; 2:18) while he was on his second missionary journey. This letter was likely penned between AD 51–52 from the city of Corinth. Depending upon the dating of the book of Galatians, the book of 1 Thessalonians is likely either the first or the second of Paul’s thirteen canonical epistles. Evidence for Pauline authorship includes its internal claims, the style and grammar similarities to Paul’s other letters, the connection with historical events as recorded in the book of Acts, and the unanimous testimony of the early church. Silas and Timothy were with Paul as he wrote this epistle (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1), which is why Paul uses first-person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us) 59 times in this short letter. Observe that ancient Thessalonica (modern-day Salonica) was both the capital and the largest city in Macedonia, with roughly 200,000 residents. As a commercial center, this cosmopolitan city, which was named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Thessalonike of Macedon, was a logical and strategic target for Paul’s church-planting efforts.

Theme and Purpose – On Paul’s second missionary journey (cf. Acts 16:1–18:22), he visited the city of Thessalonica (cf. Acts 17:1–9). It is recorded that Paul ministered here for three weeks, or at least over three Sabbaths (cf. Acts 17:2), before being run out of town by an angry mob of envious Jews (cf. Acts. 17:5–9). Yet, despite the city-wide riot, it is reported, “And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas” (Acts 17:4). These new believers constituted the church at Thessalonica. Given the fact that they had only three weeks of apostolic instruction, it is not surprising that this new church needed practical and doctrinal instruction. Therefore, Paul sent Timothy to minister to the church (cf. 1 Thess. 3:1–2); this letter addresses some of the questions Timothy brought to Paul when they later met in Corinth. The main theme of 1 Thessalonians is general theological instruction, with an emphasis on eschatology. When compared to the other churches that Paul planted, the church in Thessalonica had relatively few problems. Indeed, Paul’s two letters to this church have an overall pastoral, joyful, and hopeful tone.

Structure and Outline – The book of 1 Thessalonians, which only contains 1,481 words, is Paul’s fifth shortest letter and can be thematically outlined as follows;

  • Greeting to the Church (1:1)
  • Relationship with the People (1:2–3:13)
  • Instructions for the Body (4:1–5:22)
  • Conclusion of the Letter (5:23–28)

Fact of Conversion (1 Thess. 1:1–3)

Paul begins this letter by mentioning his main traveling companions on his second missionary journey: Silas and Timothy. Interestingly, Paul does not cite his apostleship here, as it was apparently not in question in Thessalonica. Note that the letter of Philippians is the only other church letter where Paul omits a reference to his apostleship. Remember that “the church” to whom Paul writes in this letter was the group of gathered believers in Thessalonica, not a building or a geographical location, for church structures did not exists until the fourth century. In customary language, Paul wishes this church grace and peace, as well as mentioning his thanksgiving and prayers for the gathered believers. In 1 Thess. 1:3 Paul cites the church’s (1) work of faith, (2) labor of love, and (3) patience of hope. This tri-fold reference to faith, love, and hope is a Pauline favorite in his epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13; Col. 1:4–5; 1 Thess. 5:8).

Source of Conversion (1 Thess. 1:4–6)

Perhaps wanting to remind the believers in Thessalonica of their identity in Christ, Paul cites their “election by God” (1 Thess. 1:4), a common designation for believers (cf. Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1). Here Paul notes that salvation happens at God’s initiative—that is, God chooses believers, they do not choose him (cf. Jonah 2:9; John 6:44, 65). As evidence of the theocentric nature of salvation, Paul appeals to his presentation of the gospel, which was not “in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:4). Furthermore, Paul writes, and “you know what kind of men we were among you” (1 Thess. 1:5). Paul’s point seems to be that the gospel message is authenticated both by the conversion of the lost and by the life of the gospel messenger. In accepting the gospel, the believers in Thessalonica became imitators both of Paul and of Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 1:6).

Effect of Conversion (1 Thess. 1:7–10)

After reminding the believers in Thessalonica that they had become “followers of us” (1 Thess. 1:6), in the ensuing verses Paul notes that these believers had become “examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia . . . also in every place” (1 Thess. 1:7–8). In fact, the Thessalonians’ example was so authentic and effective that Paul writes, “We do not need to say anything” (1 Thess. 1:8). Finally, in conclusion to this chapter, Paul encourages his readers, “to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). Later in this letter Paul will address Christ’s second coming in more detail (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–5:11). The reminder in 1 Thess. 1:10 is that in spite of current hardships, believers are to patiently wait for the Lord’s appearance, knowing that Jesus’ atonement has saved us from divine judgment.

Application Questions:

  1. What do you know about the book of 1 Thessalonians? What teachings from this book come to mind as being important?
  2. Given that Paul had only spent three weeks planting this church, how did it survive almost immediate persecution?
  3. Do you think most contemporary Christians have a proper concept of their corporate identity as the church?
  4. What is the gospel? What is the scope of the gospel? How do we know that the message of the gospel is authentic?
  5. Why are waiting and patience such reoccurring themes in the Christian life? How are patience and faith related?

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David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.