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1 Thessalonians 1

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verse 1


Thessalonica— Thessalonica, the modern Salonika, was founded by Cassander in 315 b.c. and was named after his wife, the step-sister of Alexander the Great. The city became the chief naval station of the Macedonian kings, and the advantages of its situation for commerce and naval warfare secured it a rapid and increasing prosperity. It was perhaps the most important city of the Roman Province of Macedonia and became the place of residence of the proconsul and virtually its capital. Its situation on the Via Egnatia, the highway connecting Rome with her eastern provinces, added enormously to its importance. In the Second Roman Civil War the city took the side of Octavius and Antony, and in reward was made a free city, ruled by its own assembly and magistrates, who were called politarchs (Acts 17:5-6). In the time of St Paul, therefore, the city was important, populous, and a strategic centre for the spread of the Faith in Macedonia. Its population was chiefly Greek, but on account of its commercial advantages many other nations were represented, especially the Jews, who formed a large and powerful community possessing a synagogue. Save for the Jews, its inhabitants were idolaters, and as licentious as any other seaport population of those days.

The Church in Thessalonica at the time of the Epistles consisted of a few Jewish converts and a large number of convert pagan Greeks (Acts 17:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Though the account of Paul’s visit in Ac would lead us to assume that he only spent three weeks there on his second missionary journey, most commentators agree that the flourishing state of the Thessalonian Church at the time of the Epistles presupposes a total length of residence of some three to six months, during which he converted a great number of Gentiles and set up a system of Church government (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14). It was in fact his great success with the Gentiles that roused the envy of the Jews (Acts 17:5) and led to a riot. Though they failed to find Paul, the situation was sufficiently menacing to cause the brethren to send him and Silas away by night to Beroea. From there the relentless persecution of the Jews of Thessalonica drove him down to Athens (Acts 17:15), where Timothy rejoined him. Being most anxious to know how his recent Thessalonian converts were facing up to the bitter persecution of the Jews, he despatched Timothy to find out and report back to him (1 Thessalonians 3:2).

Occasion— The First Epistle to the Thessalonians is the result of the favourable report brought back by Timothy to Paul who in the interval had moved on to Corinth (Acts 18:5). Along with the good news of their spiritual progress and of their patient endurance of persecution, Timothy also, it seems, informed Paul that the Jews were trying to discredit the authority of the three missionaries. He also brought two questions, possibly in writing, that required immediate answer as they were disturbing the minds of some in the Thessalonian Church, one concerning the date of the Parousia or Second Coming, and the other the fate of those of their brethren who, by their premature death, could not possibly be witnesses of the Parousia. The Apostle’s answer to the latter question satisfied them, but his clear statement of his own and every one else’s ignorance of the date of the Second Coming of Christ did not convince some of the Thessalonians and necessitated the Second Epistle in which he reaffirmed the total ignorance of all mankind of the date of the Parousia and calmed their apprehensions of the possibility of its immediate approach by enumerating certain things that must happen beforehand.

Date, place and genuineness— It seems certain that both Epistles were composed at Corinth in the early part of his stay during the second missionary journey at a time when Silas and Timothy were with him (1 Thessalonians 2:17). As Gallio seems to have been resident in Corinth as proconsul during the latter part of St Paul’s stay (Acts 18:11, Acts 18:18) in the spring of a.d. 51 or 52, the date of the First Epistle may be fixed as between the autumn of 50 and the spring of 52. The Second Epistle seems from internal evidence to have been written from two to six months after the First.

That both Epistles are genuine writings of St Paul is beyond all doubt, and there is no need to rehearse the arguments here. It may be noted, however, as a point of interest, that both Epistles are written throughout in the first person plural (except for the final salutation) on account of the part played by both Silas and Timothy in the conversion of Thessalonica.

Doctrinal Content— These epistles are especially remarkable for the glimpse they give us of the personality of Paul and of his love of the brethren and friendship for his converts. Many times does he thank God for their good progress in the Christian way of life and praise them for having become a pattern to all in the province of Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 1:3-8). The Thessalonians are his ’brothers’ for whom his love is so intense that he would gladly communicate to them not only the Gospel but his very soul, thoughts and feelings, indeed, his life, ’because you are become most dear to us’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Though they are only friends and brethren of a few months’ standing he cannot continue without news of their progress even for a short time, and he ’lives again’ when he learns not only that they are doing well but that they are as desirous to see him again as he to see them (1 Thessalonians 3:6-8).

The fundamental Pauline teaching on our Union with God in Christ, the Son of God, and his full divinity and equality with God the Father is made clear in the first salutation of both epistles. All the main Doctrines found in the other epistles, e.g. the redemptive work of Christ, sanctification through the Holy Spirit, grace, the laws of Christian morality, are taken for granted in many passing allusions. The chief subject is, however, the Second Coming, or Parousia, of Christ, to which the next section is devoted. There is also an interesting reference to a group of rulers of the Church in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14, and though they are given no name we may assume that they are similar to the clergy ordained previously in South Galatia (Acts 14:22). It is also interesting to note that the controversy over the value of circumcision and the Mosaic Law, which was still barely a couple of years past and which had produced the Epistle to the Galatians (cf. in loc.), finds no echo in Thessalonica.

The most important teaching in the Epistles is, however, usually held to be his teaching on The Second Coming, or Parousia, and this section will therefore attempt to summarize their Eschatology. The Apostle teaches that the whole spiritual life of every man must be directed towards preparing for the Parotisia ’that your whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23, cf.Acts 17:31). It was, however, their misapprehension of the bearing of this doctrine on their everyday life that led him to reiterate the necessity of continuing steadily with the humdrum business of earning their daily bread by hard work instead of standing about gossiping waiting for the Parousia, as some were doing. The scope of the following remarks is limited to showing that his teaching on the Parousia is consistent with itself, consistent with the teaching of Christ in the Gospels, and identical with the teaching of the Church today.

His doctrine may be schematized under the following heads: (1) There is at present a withholding power (? ?at????, t? ?at????) that prevents the Lawless One (the Antichrist), the emissary of Satan, from manifesting himself fully (2 Thessalonians 2:6); (2) When, however, this force is removed the Antichrist will deceive and destroy many (2 Thessalonians 2:8-11, cf. Matthew 24:21-24); (3) The Second Coming, or appearance, of Christ, properly so called (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8; cf.1 Corinthians 15:52; Matthew 24:29-31); (4) His victory over Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:8); (5) The gathering together of the dead raised to life again and of the living newly transformed to be judged by Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, cf.1 Corinthians 15:51-53; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10; Romans 2:5-16, Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Timothy 5:24; 2 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 6:2, Hebrews 9:27, Hebrews 10:27, cf. also Matthew 25:31 f., Acts 17:31); (6) The reunion with Jesus and the consummation of the reign of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:17; 1 Corinthians 15:24, 1 Corinthians 15:28).

The first point to grasp is that St Paul’s teaching on this subject is firmly based on the words of our Lord in the Gospels and especially Mt 24—indeed, the writer believes that our present Greek Matthew was the principal source of the eschatological teaching of these epistles—(cf. Orchard, Thessalonians and the Synoptic Gospels, Bi 19 [ 1938], 19 ff.). In no respect is St Paul’s teaching an innovation, save in the particular point of the lot of those who die before the Parousia (1 Thessalonians 4:13 f.), where he expressly claims a personal divine revelation. The same is true of his doctrine of the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:1-11), all of which he has drawn, according to the instruction of our Lord in Matthew 24:15, from Daniel 9-12 (cf. Orchard, St. Paul and the Book of Daniel, Bi 20 [ 1939], 172-9). There is, therefore, no need to look for its sources in the Apocryphal writings.

In the second place we have the Apostle’s repeated declaration of his own complete ignorance of the time and date of the Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 5:1, 1 Thessalonians 5:10). Now ignorance of the date meant that so far as he, Paul, knew, it was just as likely to come the next day as a thousand years later, provided that the signs that were to precede its coming had already been verified. The first sign was the destruction of Jerusalem (which in fact took place in a.d. 70, some years after the Apostle’s death); for according to Mt 24 the end cannot come before the fulfilment of the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, which was promised before ’this generation shall pass away’ (Matthew 24:34). (How much time was then to elapse between this event and the Second Coming Mt does not make clear.) St Paul, therefore, knew that as his generation would witness the destruction of Jerusalem he might quite possibly live to see it himself, and even live on into the years beyond it when the Parousia might come at any moment, provided that in the meantime the other signs preceding it had also been fulfilled. Being in this state of uncertainty he could quite justifiably identify himself either with those who would be alive at the Parousia. (1 Thessalonians 4:13; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53) or with those dead in Christ who would then rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:14; 1 Corinthians 6:14). Nor must we forget that Thessalonians was written at a time when only twenty years of the forty that constitutes a biblical ’generation’ had already passed away and that the Apostle himself was still in the prime of life. But naturally as old age approached, he must have realized that his own chance of being alive at the Parousia became correspondingly more and more remote. And thus when he wrote 2 Tim in his old age he knew he would not live to see the Parousia and was ready and eager for death (2 Timothy 4:6). A careful study of these and the other epistles confirms the tradition of the Church that while the Apostle’s views on the Parousia were consistent from first to last, the passage of time gradually led him to modify their personal application to himself.

Nor is there any real difficulty in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which may be taken as typical of most Pauline warnings to be prepared for the Second Coming; for they remind his readers and hearers that they will all be judged in that day whether they are then alive or whether they are dead and then raised up. Again, a passage such as 1 Thessalonians 1:10 shows that he encouraged his converts to look forward as eagerly as he himself to the Parousia, without worrying whether they died before it or not. For as he taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 f. ’the dead in Christ’, of whom there were already not a few, would be at no disadvantage with the living at the Parousia. It was the privilege and joy as well as the duty of all Christians to look forward to that glorious coming in order ’that whether we watch or sleep we may live together with him’ (1 Thessalonians 5:10). The Biblical Commission was therefore fully justified when in June 1915 it laid down that St Paul never said or taught, in public or in private, anything that was not perfectly compatible with his own ignorance of the time of the Parousia; cf. § 52e.

Verses 2-10


I 1 Greeting— Although the Epistle was entirely his own composition St Paul associates Sylvanus (the Silas of Ac) and Timothy, his two chief assistants on his second missionary journey, with his greetings and message throughout. This verse shows that he had taught the Thessalonians the equality of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, with God the Father. Omit the second ’in’. 915a

2-10 Thanksgiving for their Conversion— 3. Render ’labour of charity’. Basing all their hope on Christ, they had fruitfully exercised the three Theological Virtues.

4. In this behaviour lie sees their active response to God’s gratuitous gift of Faith by which they were chosen (elected) members of Christ’s Kingdom. Omit stop after v 3.

5. God’s favour to them was shown by the efficacy and fullness of St Paul’s preaching amongst them on the one hand, and by the sincerity and depth of their conversion on the other.— ’our gospel’: the ’glad-tidings’ of salvation through Christ as proclaimed by St Paul.—’in power’: either ’by miracles’ or ’efficaciously’.—’followers’: cf. 1 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 3:17.

7-8. These verses favour a residence of some months in Thessalonica, during which, and afterwards, the praise of their life sounded forth in all directions.

9. ’they themselves’: the inhabitants of Macedonia and Achaia.—’from idols’: implying that the majority had formerly been pagans, not Jews.

10. St Paul urges them to order their life towards the Second Coming and to look forward to it; he does not imply that they will live to see it— cf. § 914j.—’the wrath to come’: the judgement of condemnation on the wicked at the Parousia, cf. 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:8.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/1-thessalonians-1.html. 1951.
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