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Bible Commentaries

Gaebelein's Annotated Bible

1 Thessalonians

- 1 Thessalonians

by Arno Clemens Gaebelein



The city of Thessalonica was situated on the northern part of the Aegean Sea, on the Thermaic Gulf It was a prominent city of the Roman province, Macedonia. Its inhabitants were mostly Thracians. Thessalonica was a wealthy and large city and for a time, the most influential centre in the northeastern part of the Roman empire. On account of its great commerce many Jews had settled there and a flourishing synagogue existed in the city.

The visit of the Apostle Paul to Thessalonica is recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the book of Acts. It took place after his ministry in Philippi. It seems that the persecution there hastened his departure. Paul had said to the magistrates, “They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now would they thrust us out privily? Nay, verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.” When this came to the ears of the authorities, they became frightened for it was illegal to scourge a Roman citizen. “And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city. And they went out of the prison and entered into the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them and departed” (Acts 16:37-40 ). Of his experience Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain. But even after that we had suffered before, and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention” (1 Thessalonians 2:1-2 ). Leaving then Philippi with Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy they went along the famous highway, the Via Egnatia and reached the city of Thessalonica. On the way they passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia. On their arrival Paul followed his usual custom and visited the synagogue.

For three Sabbaths, the record in Acts tells us, he reasoned with them out of the Scriptures. The Scriptures, of course, were the Old Testament Scriptures, for the New Testament was then not in existence. The way he dealt with his Jewish brethren is the pattern still for reaching the Jews with the gospel. He opened the Scriptures, and without mentioning the name of the Lord Jesus at all, he showed that the Old Testament teaches that the Messiah (Christ) promised to them must suffer and rise from the dead. This great truth that the sufferings of Messiah come first and the glory follows, had been forgotten by the Jews. A crucified Christ was their stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23 ). They looked only to the glory-side and the accomplishment, through Him, of the national promises. And after Paul had demonstrated from the Scriptures “that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead,” then he boldly declared that “this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” The predictions of the suffering and the resurrection of Christ were fulfilled in the Lord Jesus. But he must have preached more than that. He also taught that Christ would come again. This we learn from the fact that the unbelieving Jews, in bringing Jason, who had believed, with other brethren before the rulers, accused them of “turning the world upside down,” and “that there is another King, one Jesus” (Acts 17:5-7 ). His second Epistle also shows that he had given them instructions in dispensational and prophetic truths (2 Thessalonians 2:5 ).

The Church in Thessalonica

As a result of his testimony a church was at once gathered out. “And some of them believed and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few” (Acts 17:4 ). From this we learn that a number of Jews were persuaded that the Lord Jesus is the Christ and accepted Him as their Saviour and Lord. But the church was mostly composed of devout Greeks. These were not heathen, but Greeks who had given up idolatry and had become Jewish proselytes. They were convinced that paganism was wrong and seeking for light attended the synagogical services. Of this class a great multitude believed. The third class mentioned are women who occupied positions of distinction. Not a few of them believed. The Epistles Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians also shows the character of those gathered. That the majority of them were Gentiles is learned from the statement that they had turned to God from idols (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ). The evils against which he warns (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ) were mostly practised by the Greeks; and they belonged mostly to the poorer, the working class (1 Thessalonians 4:11 ).

Paul’s First Epistle: When and for What it was Written

The Epistle to the Thessalonians is the first Epistle Paul wrote. Even the most outspoken critics acknowledge that it is a genuine document. Irenaeus (about 140 A.D.) bears witness to this Epistle. There are many other historical evidences, besides the contents of the Epistle, which prove conclusively that Paul is the author of it. All this is not necessary to follow in this brief introduction. The Authorized Version has a postscript “written from Athens .” This claim is made on account of the apostle’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 . “Wherefore, when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left alone at Athens. And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith.” It is surmised that Timotheus carried this letter to the Thessalonians. This is incorrect. The Epistle was written after Timotheus had returned from his visit to Thessalonica. The sixth verse of the third chapter furnishes this evidence. “But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and love, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us.” Timothy came from Thessalonica with the good news of the happy state of the Thessalonian church and joined the apostle in Corinth (Acts 18:5 ). From Corinth Paul wrote this first Epistle about the year 52 or possibly a few months later.

The apostle had been compelled to break off suddenly his ministry in Thessalonica on account of the persecutions which had arisen in that city. “The brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea “ (Acts 17:10 ). He must have felt that the new converts needed more instructions. Of this he writes in the Epistle. “But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again: but Satan hindered us” (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 ). To comfort them in the midst of the persecution and in their sorrow, to encourage them in their conflicts, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to write this first Epistle. Timothy had brought to him the information of the tribulations they were undergoing. And they were especially distressed by the death of a number of believers. They sorrowed almost like those who had no hope, because they feared that these departed ones would have no share in the glory and in the kingdom of the returning Christ. To relieve them of their anxiety, to give them further light on the coming of the Lord in relation to those who are asleep and the reunion with them who have gone before, what will happen when the Lord comes for His saints, so that they could comfort each other, is one of the chief reasons why this letter was written.

The Coming of the Lord

The blessed hope of the coming of the Lord occupies a very prominent place in this Epistle. In our days we often hear the statement that the coming of our Lord is an unessential doctrine. Those who make such an assertion are ignorant of the fact that the blessed hope is a part of the gospel itself. Christian preaching and teaching which ignores the blessed hope, the coming of the Lord, is incomplete; it omits one of the most vital truths which the Spirit of God has linked with the gospel and with the life and service of the believer. The first Epistle the great apostle wrote is an evidence of this. In this Epistle one of the greatest revelations in the Word of God about His coming, is made known (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ). It is the Epistle in which the doctrine of the coming of Christ is unfolded and shown to be practically connected with the Christian’s life. Each chapter bears witness to it (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 ; 1 Thessalonians 3:13 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ). Christians wait for Him; serve in anticipation of His coming when all service will be rewarded and the servant crowned; His coming is the incentive to a holy life, it is the comfort and consolation and when He comes and takes His own in clouds to meet Him in the air, it will bring the unexpected judgment for the world. The second Epistle gives additional light on the visible manifestation of the Lord, what will precede that day and what is connected with it, when He comes with His holy angels. The fate of those who obey not the gospel and who receive not the love of the truth is made known in the second Epistle.

The Division of First Thessalonians

Simplicity and deep affection are the marks of this Epistle. We find nothing about Judaizers, these perverters of the gospel of Jesus Christ against whom Paul had to warn in his later Epistles. Warnings such as we have in Colossians and other Epistles are absent. The loving apostle is not grieved in any way, but happy on account of the gracious work going on in the midst of the Thessalonians, and rejoicing in them as his beloved children. In the study of this Epistle we maintain the division in five chapters.