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- 1 Thessalonians
by William Barclay
A GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE LETTERS OF PAUL
The Letters Of Paul
There is no more interesting body of documents in the New Testament than the letters of Paul. That is because of all forms of literature a letter is most personal. Demetrius, one of the old Greek literary critics, once wrote, "Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary." (Demetrius, On Style, 227). It is just because he left us so many letters that we feel we know Paul so well. In them he opened his mind and heart to the folk he loved so much; and in them, to this day, we can see that great mind grappling with the problems of the early church, and feel that great heart throbbing with love for men, even when they were misguided and mistaken.
The Difficulty Of Letters
At the same time, there is often nothing so difficult to understand as a letter. Demetrius (On Style, 223) quotes a saying of Artemon, who edited the letters of Aristotle. Artemon said that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, because it was one of the two sides of a dialogue. In other words, to read a letter is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. So when we read the letters of Paul we are often in a difficulty. We do not possess the letter which he was answering; we do not fully know the circumstances with which he was dealing; it is only from the letter itself that we can deduce the situation which prompted it. Before we can hope to understand fully any letter Paul wrote, we must try to reconstruct the situation which produced it.
The Ancient Letters
It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of the papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written. It was composed of strips of the pith of a certain bulrush that grew on the banks of the Nile. These strips were laid one on top of the other to form a substance very like brown paper. The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last forever so long as moisture does not get at it. As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern. Here is one of these ancient letters. It is from a soldier, called Apion, to his father Epimachus. He is writing from Misenum to tell his father that he has arrived safely after a stormy passage.
"Apion sends heartiest greetings to his father and lord Epimachus.
I pray above all that you are well and fit; and that things are
going well with you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.
I thank my Lord Serapis [his god] that he kept me safe when I was
in peril on the sea. As soon as I got to Misenum I got my journey
money from Caesar--three gold pieces. And things are going fine
with me. So I beg you, my dear father, send me a line, first to let
me know how you are, and then about my brothers, and thirdly, that
I may kiss your hand, because you brought me up well, and because
of that I hope, God willing, soon to be promoted. Give Capito my
heartiest greetings, and my brothers and Serenilla and my friends.
I sent you a little picture of myself painted by Euctemon. My
military name is Antonius Maximus. I pray for your good health.
Serenus sends good wishes, Agathos Daimon's boy, and Turbo,
Gallonius' son." (G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri,
Little did Apion think that we would be reading his letter to his father 1800 years after he had written it. It shows how little human nature changes. The lad is hoping for promotion quickly. Who would Serenilla be but the girl he left behind him? He sends the ancient equivalent of a photograph to the folk at home. Now that letter falls into certain sections. (i) There is a greeting. (ii) There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. (iii) There is a thanksgiving to the gods. (iv) There are the special contents. (v) Finally, there are the special salutations and the personal greetings. Practically every one of Paul's letters shows exactly the same sections, as we now demonstrate.
(i) The Greeting: Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Php_1:1 ; Colossians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1.
(ii) The Prayer: in every case Paul prays for the grace of God on the people to whom he writes: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Php_1:3 ; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2.
(iii) The Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Php_1:3 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3.
(iv) The Special Contents: the main body of the letters.
(v) Special Salutations and Personal Greetings: Romans 16:1-27; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Php_4:21-22 ; Colossians 4:12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.
When Paul wrote letters, he wrote them on the pattern which everyone used. Deissmann says of them, "They differ from the messages of the homely papyrus leaves of Egypt, not as letters but only as the letters of Paul." When we read Paul's letters we are not reading things which were meant to be academic exercises and theological treatises, but human documents written by a friend to his friends.
The Immediate Situation
With a very few exceptions, all Paul's letters were written to meet an immediate situation and not treatises which he sat down to write in the peace and silence of his study. There was some threatening situation in Corinth, or Galatia, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, and he wrote a letter to meet it. He was not in the least thinking of us when he wrote, but solely of the people to whom he was writing. Deissmann writes, "Paul had no thought of adding a few fresh compositions to the already extant Jewish epistles; still less of enriching the sacred literature of his nation.... He had no presentiment of the place his words would occupy in universal history; not so much that they would be in existence in the next generation, far less that one day people would look at them as Holy Scripture." We must always remember that a thing need not be transient because it was written to meet an immediate situation. All the great love songs of the world were written for one person, but they live on for the whole of mankind. It is just because Paul's letters were written to meet a threatening danger or a clamant need that they still throb with life. And it is because human need and the human situation do not change that God speaks to us through them today.
The Spoken Word
One other thing we must note about these letters. Paul did what most people did in his day. He did not normally pen his own letters but dictated them to a secretary, and then added Ws own authenticating signature. (We actually know the name of one of the people who did the writing for him. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end). In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, "This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me." (compare Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17.)
This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and the construction becomes involved. We must not think of him sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he writes. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent of words, while his secretary races to get them down. When Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind's eye a vision of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
INTRODUCTION TO THE LETTERS TO THE THESSALONIANS
Paul Comes To Macedonia
For anyone who can read between the lines the story of Paul's coming to Macedonia is one of the most dramatic in the book of Acts. Luke, with supreme economy of words, tells it in Acts 16:6-10. Short as that narrative is, it gives the impression of a chain of circumstances inescapably culminating in one supreme event. Paul had passed through Phrygia and Galatia and ahead of him lay the Hellespont. To the left lay the teeming province of Asia, to the right stretched the great province of Bithynia; but the Spirit would allow him to enter neither. There was something driving him relentlessly on to the Aegean Sea. So he came to Alexandrian Troas, still uncertain where he ought to go; and then there came to him a vision in the night of a man who cried, "Come over into Macedonia and help us." Paul set sail, and for the first time the gospel came to Europe.
At that moment Paul must have seen much more than a continent for Christ. It was in Macedonia that he landed; and Macedonia was the kingdom of Alexander the Great, who had conquered the world and wept because there were no more worlds left to conquer. But Alexander was much more than a military conqueror. He was almost the first universalist. He was more a missionary than a soldier; and he dreamed of one world dominated and enlightened by the culture of Greece. Even so great a thinker as Aristotle had said that it was a plain duty to treat Greeks as free men and orientals as slaves; but Alexander declared that he had been sent by God "to unite, to pacify and to reconcile the whole world." Deliberately he had said that it was his aim "to marry the East to the West." He had dreamed of an Empire in which there was neither Greek nor Jew, barbarian or Scythian, bond or free ( Colossians 3:11). It is hard to see how Alexander could have failed to be in Paul's thoughts. Paul left from Alexandrian Troas which was called after Alexander; he came to Macedonia which was Alexander's original kingdom; he worked at Philippi which was called after Philip, Alexander's father; he went on to Thessalonica which was called after Alexander's half-sister. The whole territory was saturated with memories of Alexander; and Paul must surely have thought, not of a country nor of a continent, but of a world for Christ.
Paul Comes To Thessalonica
This sense of the wide-stretching arms of Christianity must have been accentuated when Paul came to Thessalonica. It was a great city. Its original name was Thermal, which means The Hot Springs, and it gave its name to the Thermaic Gulf on which it stood. Six hundred years ago Herodotus had described it as a great city. It has always been a famous harbour. It was there that Xerxes the Persian had his naval base when he invaded Europe; and even in Roman times it was one of the world's great dockyards. In 315 B.C. Cassander had rebuilt the city and renamed it Thessalonica, the name of his wife, who was a daughter of Philip of Macedon and a half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was a free city; that is to say it had never suffered the indignity of having Roman troops quartered within it. It had its own popular assembly and its own magistrates. Its population rose to 200,000 and for a time it was a question whether it or Constantinople would be recognized as the capital of the world. Even today, under the name Salonika, it has 70,000 inhabitants.
But the supreme importance of Thessalonica lay in this--it straddled the Via Egnatia, the Egnatian Road, which stretched from Dyrrachium on the Adriatic to Constantinople on the Bosphorus and thence away to Asia Minor and the East. Its main street was part of the very road which linked Rome with the East. East and West converged on Thessalonica; it was said to be "in the lap of the Roman Empire." Trade poured into her from East and West, so that it was said, "So long as nature does not change, Thessalonica will remain wealthy and prosperous."
It is impossible to overstress the importance of the arrival of Christianity in Thessalonica. If Christianity was settled there, it was bound to spread East along the Egnatian Road until all Asia was conquered and West until it stormed even the city of Rome. The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was crucial in the making of it into a world religion.
Paul's Stay At Thessalonica
The story of Paul's stay at Thessalonica is in Acts 17:1-10. Now, for Paul, what happened at Thessalonica was of supreme importance. He preached in the synagogue for three Sabbaths ( Acts 17:2) which means that his stay there could not have been much more than three weeks in length. He had such tremendous success that the Jews were enraged and raised so much trouble that Paul had to be smuggled out, in peril of his life, to Beroea. The same thing happened in Beroea ( Acts 17:10-12) and Paul had to leave Timothy and Silas behind and make his escape to Athens. What exercised his mind was this. He had been in Thessalonica only three weeks. Was it possible to make such an impression on a place in three weeks' time that Christianity was planted so deeply that it could never again be uprooted? If so, it was by no means an idle dream that the Roman Empire might yet be won for Christ. Or was it necessary to settle down and work for months, even years, before an impression could be made? In that event, no man could even dimly foresee when Christianity would penetrate all over the world. Thessalonica was a test case; and Paul was torn with anxiety to know how it would turn out.
News From Thessalonica
So anxious was Paul that, when Timothy joined him at Athens, he sent him back to Thessalonica to get the information without which he could not rest ( 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:17). What news did Timothy bring back? There was good news. The affection of the Thessalonians for Paul was as strong as ever; and they were standing fast in the faith ( 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 1 Thessalonians 3:4-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10). They were indeed "his glory and Ws joy" ( 1 Thessalonians 2:20). But there was worrying news.
(i) The preaching of the Second Coming had produced an unhealthy situation in which people had stopped working and had abandoned all ordinary pursuits to await the Second Coming with a kind of hysterical expectancy. So Paul tells them to be quiet and to get on with their work ( 1 Thessalonians 4:11).
(ii) They were worried about what was to happen to those who died before the Second Coming arrived. Paul explains that those who fall asleep in Jesus will miss none of the glory ( 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
(iii) There was a tendency to despise all lawful authority; the argumentative Greek was always in danger of producing a democracy run mad ( 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14).
(iv) There was the ever-present danger that they would relapse into immorality. It was hard to unlearn the point of view of generations and to escape the contagion of the heathen world ( 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
(v) There was at least a section who slandered Paul. They hinted that he preached the gospel for what he could get out of it ( 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:9); and that he was something of a dictator ( 1 Thessalonians 2:6-7; 1 Thessalonians 2:11).
(vi) There was a certain amount of division in the Church ( 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:13).
These were the problems with which Paul had to deal; and they show that human nature has not changed so very much.
Why Two Letters?
We must ask why there are two letters. They art, very much alike and they must have been written within weeks, perhaps days of each other. The second letter was written mainly to clear up a misconception about the Second Coming. The first letter insists that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and urges watchfulness ( 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:6). But this produced the unhealthy situation where men did nothing but watch and wait; and in the second letter Paul explains what signs must come first before the Second Coming should come ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12). The Thessalonians had got their ideas about the Second Coming out of proportion. As so often happens to a preacher, Paul's preaching had been misunderstood, and certain phrases had been taken out of context and over-emphasized; and the second letter seeks to put things back in their proper balance and to correct the thoughts of the excited Thessalonians regarding the Second Coming. Of course, Paul takes occasion in the second letter to repeat and to stress much of the good advice and rebuke he had given in the first, but its main aim is to tell them certain things which will calm their hysteria and make them wait, not in excited idleness, but in patient and diligent attendance to the day's work. In these two letters we see Paul solving the day to day problems which arose in the expanding Church.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20