Paul’s time in Thessalonica proved quite brief; he was compelled to leave quickly under threat of harm (Acts 17:1-9). What would become of those among the Thessalonians who came to believe in Jesus as the Christ? Timothy returned to Corinth with good news; Paul wrote what we call 1 Thessalonians to strengthen and encourage them in the faith and in the hope of the resurrection.
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the thirteenth book in modern editions of the New Testament. Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy are listed as its authors, but Paul’s is the primary voice (1 Thessalonians 1:1); nothing in the letter provides any indication whether Paul wrote it personally or dictated it to an amanuensis. Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians is not seriously challenged even among most scholars. Paul spoke of the circumstances which took place immediately after his departure from Thessalonica, and wrote as if not much time had elapsed since then (1 Thessalonians 3:1-13); we thus believe 1 Thessalonians was written ca. 51-52 CE, most likely from Corinth. 1 Thessalonians is therefore quite likely Paul’s first letter as preserved in the New Testament and might even be the oldest book of the New Testament. Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to commend the Thessalonian Christians for standing firm in their faith in the face of persecution despite their youth in the faith and to provide exhortation and consolation regarding the day of resurrection and judgment.
Having begun with a standard epistolary greeting (1 Thessalonians 1:1), Paul gave thanks for the faith and example of the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10). Paul remembered their faith and labor, how God chose them, manifest in their acceptance of the Gospel preached in word and manifest in power, having become imitators of Paul and the Lord, having accepted the Word despite persecution (1 Thessalonians 1:2-6). In this way the Thessalonian Christians have become an example to believers not only in Greece but everywhere, for many testified regarding the faith of the Thessalonians and how they turned from idols to serve the living God, awaiting the return of Jesus to save us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:7-10). Paul remained confident his coming to them was not in vain, for they accepted the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:1). He testified how he arrived in Thessalonica, having experienced conflict at Philippi, and commended how the Gospel had been preached to them, and how he proved as caring and gentle toward them as a mother for her children, willing to give of his own life for them (1 Thessalonians 2:2-8). Paul reminded them how he worked to not be a burden to them, maintained blameless conduct among them, and exhorted them to walk in a manner worthy of God, like a father exhorts his son (1 Thessalonians 2:9-12). Paul was thankful how the Thessalonian Christians accepted the Gospel as the Word of God, and spoke of how the Thessalonians were imitators of Judean Christians, suffering from their fellow citizens what the Judean Christians suffered from their fellow Jews, hindering the proclamation of the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16).
Paul turned to speak regarding recent circumstances (1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13). Paul wanted to return to Thessalonica after having been forced to leave so quickly but had been hindered by Satan; the Thessalonians are as his glory and joy in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20). From Athens Paul had sent Timothy to them to encourage them in the faith, fearing the tempter had succeeded, and he had labored in vain (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5). Timothy had returned with an encouraging report, and Paul was thankful; he gave thanks for them, their faith, and their desire to see him as well; he prayed that God might allow him to return to them and to strengthen and establish them in the meantime (1 Thessalonians 3:6-13).
Paul concluded his letter with exhortations to faithful living and reassurance regarding the final day of judgment (1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:28). Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to continue to live faithfully and do so all the more: God willed their sanctification, to avoid sexually deviant behavior, for God called them to holiness not impurity (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). Paul continued to encourage them to love each other all the more, even though they already were doing so; to live peaceably and quietly, minding their own business, and to continue to maintain employment to live appropriately among outsiders and not dependent on them (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12).
Paul then focused on the day of the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11). Paul wished to encourage the Thessalonians about Christians who had “fallen asleep,” those who had died in Christ: they should not grieve as the Gentiles who have no hope, for as the Lord died and was raised again, so on the day of resurrection all who have died will rise again (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Those who remain alive on the day of the Lord’s return will not precede those who have died: the Lord will return with the sound of the trumpet, the dead will rise first, and those who remain alive will be caught up with the Lord, and will always be with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). As to times and seasons when this will take place, Paul reminded the Thessalonians that Jesus will return as a thief in the night, as unexpected; they must be as children of the light, not darkness, and be always ready for the Lord’s return; God has not destined us for wrath but salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
Paul’s final instructions returned to the theme of general exhortations (1 Thessalonians 5:12-28). They are to esteem highly those who work in the Lord among them; admonish the idle, strengthen the fainthearted and weak; do not repay evil for evil but do good to all; rejoice; pray; give thanks; do not quench the Spirit; test all things and hold fast to what is good; abstain from evil (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22). Paul concluded with a prayer for the sanctification of the Thessalonians, a request for prayer, exhortation to read the letter to all the Christians, greetings, and a standard epistolary conclusion (1 Thessalonians 5:23-28).
The Thessalonian Christians proved strong in the faith despite persecution and other challenges, and they proved to be a continual source of encouragement for Paul. We do well to learn from their example, seek after holiness and sanctification, and be prepared for the day of resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry