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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

1 Thessalonians

- 1 Thessalonians

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Thessalonica was originally an ancient town named Thermai, meaning "Hot Springs." The town gave its name to the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea on whose shore it stood. In time it became an important city because of its strategic location. Cassander, the Macedonian king, founded the more modern city in 315 B.C. and named it for his wife, who was a half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and it stood on the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway to the East. In Paul’s day it was a self-governing community with enough Jews in residence to warrant a synagogue (Act_17:1).

"Under the Romans it was the capital of the second of the four divisions of Macedonia, and when these were united to form one single province in 146 B.C. it became the capital, as well as the largest city of the province." [Note: Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, p. 11. See also Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology, pp. 337-41.]

Paul first visited Thessalonica during his second missionary journey with Silas, Timothy, and perhaps others. They had just left prison in Philippi and made their way southward to Thessalonica. For at least three Sabbath days Paul reasoned in the synagogue with those present, and many believed the gospel (Act_17:2). However, he probably ministered in Thessalonica for a longer time than just three weeks in view of what he wrote that he had done there (e.g., 1Th_2:9; cf. Php_4:15-16). [Note: Robert L. Thomas, "1 Thessalonians," in Ephesians-Philemon, vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 230; Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, p. 7.] Those who responded to the message of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection (Act_17:3; Act_17:7) were Jews (Act_17:4) and God-fearing proselytes to Judaism. There were also some leading women of the city and many idol-worshipping pagans (Act_17:4-5). [Note: See Karl P. Donfried, "The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence," New Testament Studies 31:3 (July 1985):336-57, for more information on the religious and political background of Thessalonica.]

"If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions from them for their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers." [Note: W. W. Tarn and G. T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilisation, pp. 98-99.]

When the unbelieving Jews heard of the conversion of the proselytes, whom they were discipling, they stirred up a gang of roughnecks who attacked the house of Jason. Paul and his friends had been staying with him. Unable to find the missionaries, the mob dragged Jason before the magistrates who simply commanded him to keep the peace. Convinced of the danger for Paul and Jason, the Christians sent Paul and Silas away from the city by night to Berea (Act_17:10).

Paul and his party began their evangelistic work in Berea in the synagogue, as was their custom. However when many Jews there believed, the Thessalonian Jews came down to Berea and stirred up more trouble (Act_17:10-13). The Berean Christians sent Paul away to Athens, but Silas and Timothy remained in Berea (Act_17:14). Having been sent for by Paul, Silas and Timothy joined Paul in Athens, but he soon sent Silas back to Philippi and or Berea, and Timothy back to Thessalonica (1Th_3:1-3; Act_17:15). Later both men returned to Paul while he was practicing his trade in Corinth (Act_18:3; Act_18:5) with a gift from the Christians in those Macedonian towns (2Co_11:9; cf. Php_4:15).

Timothy’s report of conditions in the Thessalonian church led Paul to write this epistle. Some of the Thessalonians apparently believed that Jesus Christ was about to return momentarily and had consequently given up their jobs and had become disorderly (cf. 1Th_4:11; 1Th_5:14). Some worried about what had happened to their loved ones who had died before the Lord had returned (1Th_4:13; 1Th_4:18). Persecution from the Gentiles as well as the Jews still oppressed the believers (1Th_2:17 to 1Th_3:10) who were nevertheless holding fast to the truth and eager to see Paul again (1Th_3:6-8). Some outside the church, however, remained hostile to Paul (1Th_2:1-12). There appears to have been some misuse of spiritual gifts in the assembly as well as an unfortunate tendency on the part of some to return to their former habits involving sexual impurity (1Th_4:1-8; 1Th_5:19-21).

It seems clear that Paul wrote this epistle shortly after he arrived in Corinth (1Th_1:7-9; 1Th_2:17; 1Th_3:1; 1Th_3:6; Act_18:5; Act_18:11), about A.D. 51. If one follows the early dating of Galatians before the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which I do, this epistle would have been Paul’s second inspired writing. If Paul penned Galatians after the second missionary journey, 1 Thessalonians could have been his first inspired epistle. [Note: Thomas, p. 248; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. xi; A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 4:3; et al., held that this was Paul’s first epistle.] However the first option seems more probable. [Note: For a fuller discussion, see Thomas L. Constable, "1 Thessalonians," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp. 687-89; and the New Testament Introductions.]

A few scholars have suggested that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians before he wrote 1 Thessalonians. [Note: E.g., T. W. Manson, "St. Paul in Greece: The Letters to the Thessalonians," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 35 (1952-53):438-46; ibid., Studies in the Gospels and Epistles; and Wanamaker, pp. 37-45.] According to this theory 1 Thessalonians responds to issues alluded to in 2 Thessalonians. This is not as improbable as may appear at first since the traditional sequence of Pauline letters to churches rests on length rather than date. Nonetheless this theory has not convinced most scholars. [Note: E.g., E. A. Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (1977 ed.), pp. 43-44; I. Howard Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, p. 26; R. Jewett, The Thessalonian Correspondence: Pauline Rhetoric and Millenarian Piety, pp. 24-25; Morris, pp. 27-30; and most others. See F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, pp. xxxix-xliv; or Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 543-44; for good discussions of the issue.]

PURPOSE

In view of this epistle’s contents, Paul had at least three purposes in mind when he wrote it. First, he wanted to encourage the Christians in Thessalonica who were making good progress in their new faith (1Th_1:2-10). Second, he desired to correct misinformation about himself and his fellow missionaries that some of his critics in Thessalonica were circulating (1Th_2:1 to 1Th_3:13). Third, he wrote to give additional instruction that would contribute to the Thessalonians’ spiritual growth (1Th_4:1 to 1Th_5:24). Whereas we regard 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus as the Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Thessalonians are every bit as pastoral and personal, as is 2 Corinthians. They reveal much about "Paul’s pastoral zeal and his intense interest in the spiritual well-being of his converts." [Note: Morris, p. 19.] As such they are an invaluable resource for people in pastoral ministry.

"Far and away the largest theological contribution of the Epistles [1 and 2 Thessalonians] lies in what they say about eschatology." [Note: Thomas, p. 233.]

". . . over a quarter of 1 Thessalonians and nearly half of 2 Thessalonians deal with problems and issues regarding the parousia or coming of Christ from heaven." [Note: Wanamaker, p. 10.]

"The Thessalonian letters present the first literary evidence for the use of parousia . . . in the sense of the future Advent of Christ: it occurs in this sense six times in the two letters. The event is depicted repeatedly in language borrowed from portrayals of OT theophanies. But it is the ethical implications that are chiefly stressed: the writers look forward to the Parousia especially as the time when their service will be reviewed and rewarded by the Lord who commissioned them, and they will be content, they say, to have it assessed by the quality of their converts." [Note: Bruce, p. xxxviii.]

OUTLINE [NOTE: FOR AN OUTLINE OF THE BOOK BASED ON RHETORICAL ANALYSIS, SEE WANAMAKER, P. 49.]

I.    Salutation and greeting 1Th_1:1

II.    Personal commendations and explanations 1Th_1:2 to 1Th_3:13

A.    Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians 1Th_1:2-10

1.    Summary statement 1Th_1:2-3

2.    Specific reasons 1Th_1:4-10

B.    Reminders for the Thessalonians 1Th_2:1-16

1.    How the gospel was delivered 1Th_2:1-12

2.    How the gospel was received 1Th_2:13-16

C.    Concerns for the Thessalonians 1Th_2:17 to 1Th_3:13

1.    Desires to see them again 1Th_2:17 to 1Th_3:5

2.    Joy on hearing about them 1Th_3:6-13

III.    Practical instructions and exhortations 1Th_4:1 to 1Th_5:24

A.    Christian living 1Th_4:1-12

1.    Continued growth 1Th_4:1-2

2.    Sexual purity 1Th_4:3-8

3.    Brotherly love 1Th_4:9-12

B.    The Rapture 1Th_4:13-18

C.    Personal watchfulness 1Th_5:1-11

D.    Church life 1Th_5:12-15

1.    Attitudes toward leaders 1Th_5:12-13

2.    Relationships among themselves 1Th_5:14-15

E.    Individual behavior 1Th_5:16-24

1.    Personal actions and attitudes 1Th_5:16-18

2.    Actions and attitudes in corporate living 1Th_5:19-22

3.    Divine enablement 1Th_5:23-24

IV.    Conclusion 1Th_5:25-28

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