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- 1 Thessalonians
by Gary Hampton
Thessalonica was located in the northern most corner of the Thermaic Gulf, not far from the mouth of the Axius River. Great dockyards are said to have been located there during Roman times. The Via Egnation Way also passed through the city so there was a continual flow of traffic between Rome and the eastern provinces. After Rome conquered the city in 168 B. C., it was made the capital of one of the four provinces into which Macedonia was divided. Later, when Macedonia was reunited as one province, it was made capital over the whole region.
Originally the town was called Therma, probably because of the hot springs in the area. In 315 B. C., Cassander built a new city near Therma and renamed it for his wife, Thessalonica. She was the daughter of Philip II and Alexander the Great's step-sister. Probably because of its good location, the city has often been captured. The Saracens conquered it in A. D. 904, followed by the Normans in 1185 and the Turks in 1430. In 1912, the Greeks conquered it and have maintained it to this very day under the name of Salonika.
The Macedonian Call
The second missionary journey began shortly after the conference in Jerusalem. Because they could not agree on John Mark, Barnabas and Paul separated. Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus, while Paul took Silas and "went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches" ( Act_15:36-41 ). At Derbe and Lystra, a young Christian named Timothy was recommended by the brethren to Paul. The apostle had him circumcised, probably because he was from a Jewish mother, and took him with him as they delivered the message of the conference to the Gentile Christians. The churches grew in faith and increased in numbers as well ( Act_15:36-41 ; Act_16:1-5 ).
Just west of the cities in south Galatia was the Roman province of Asia. At this time, Luke says Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to enter that region to teach. This might have been done directly or through the agency of a prophet inspired by the Spirit (compare Act_20:23 ; Act_21:10-11 ). Later in Act_19:1-41 , Paul did get his opportunity to preach in Asia and the church grew there in a fine way, as is evidenced by the Lord's letters in Rev_2:1-29 ; Rev_3:1-22 . Apparently, Paul and those with him continued to work their way along until they came to Mysia, which was at the northern border between Asia and Bithynia. They would have gone into Bithynia, but the Spirit again forbade them to go, so they turned westward to Troas. Bithynia may have later heard the word through the preaching of Peter ( 1Pe_1:1 ).
Paul and his company determined, after a vision the apostle had in the night, that the Lord wanted them to preach in Macedonia. So, they immediately made arrangements and set sail from Troas to Samothrace, then Neapolis and, finally, Philippi ( Act_16:6-12 ), which Luke described as "the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony."
Preaching in Thessalonica
Luke did not tell Theophilus why Paul passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia. He did explain that the next stop on this second missionary tour was Thessalonica. Hiebert says, "The majority of the Thessalonians were native Greeks." He then adds, "A sprinkling of Romans and Orientals lived there, and because of the attractive commerce at Thessalonica, there was a large Jewish colony in the city." When Paul arrived there, as is recorded in Act_17:1-34 , there was a synagogue of the Jews there and a great number of God-fearing Greeks. As was his habit, Paul went to the synagogue for three consecutive Sabbath days to reason with the Jews.
The very idea of a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to the Jews ( 1Co_1:23 ), but Paul argued from the prophets that such was precisely what God had foretold ( Isa_53:1-12 ). He further established that God had planned and accomplished Jesus' resurrection from the dead and made Him King over His people ( Act_2:22-36 ; 1Co_15:1-4 ). The scriptural evidence was supported by the miracles worked by the power of the Holy Spirit ( 1Th_1:5 ).
During Paul's three weeks teaching in the synagogue, he and Silas worked with their own hands to support themselves ( 1Th_2:9 ). In the Philippian letter (4:16), it becomes clear the apostle also received support from the brethren in Philippi on at least two occasions. The combination of scriptural preaching, miracles and the apostle's obvious commitment to reach the lost had its desired effect as some Jews, Greeks who worshipped God and prominent women from the community obeyed the gospel ( Act_17:1-4 ; 1Th_1:9 ).
A Different Response to the Gospel
It might be said that all the Jews responded to Paul's preaching. Those unconverted by the gospel gathered a mob, described by Luke as "vile fellows of the rabble," and sought to take Paul and Silas by force from Jason's house where they had been staying. When they could not find the two missionaries, they dragged Jason and some brethren before the rulers of the city. They accused Paul and Silas of being part of the number who turned the world upside down. They also said Paul and Silas were stirring up insurrection against Rome by calling for allegiance to another King, Jesus. Hiebert calls the magistrates' settlement of the case a shrewd one. They thought the matter serious enough to require security, perhaps like a property bond, of Jason and the others, warning that it would be forfeited if any further disturbance occurred.
This satisfied the accusers, proved the magistrates were loyal to Rome and was a mild penalty for the Christians. However, it meant Paul and Silas would have to leave town, especially for the safety of fellow Christians. Under these difficult conditions, Paul and Silas were sent away by night to Berea, some 60 miles away ( Act_17:5-10 a).
The Date of the First Letter to Thessalonica
Clearly, Paul did not leave at a time of his choosing. It is likely Paul did not stay as long as he would have liked. There can be no doubt that he desired to be with them again and had concern for their spiritual well-being. When he saw that he would be unable to visit them personally, Paul sent Timothy to check on their spiritual condition (2:17-3:5).
Paul wrote the first letter to Thessalonica when Timothy returned with his report from the first visit. From Act_18:1-5 , we know Timothy and Silas returned from Macedonia while Paul was in Corinth. We assume this letter was written from Corinth. Act_18:12 indicates Paul's stay was during the time of the proconsul Gallio. An inscription found in 1909 at Delphi names Gallio proconsul at the time of the 26th acclamation of Emperor Caudius. This would place Paul in Corinth somewhere from A. D. 50 to 54. Any date during that time frame is possible.
The Purpose of the Letter
The letter seems to have several purposes. As with most of Paul's letters, there are commendations that would encourage the brethren to continue in good works they were doing. There is a section devoted to a defense of Paul's actions while he was with them that may indicate he was answering some accusers. A plea for them to continue in Christian purity is also a part of the epistle. In addition, there is a very important section on the Lord's second coming which seems to answer some questions that were troubling them.
Coffman, James Burton. Commentary on I & II Thessalonians I & II Timothy Titus and Philemon. Austin: Firm, Foundation Publishing House, 1978.
Hiebert, D. Edmond. An Introduction to the Pauline Epistles. Chicago: Moody Press, 1954.
Kelcy, Raymond C. The Letters of Paul to the Thessalonians. Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1968.
Lipscomb, David. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1942.
McGarvey, J. W. and Pendleton, Philip Y. Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans. Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, n. d.
Thomas, Leslie G. Teacher's Annual Lesson Commentary on Uniform Bible Lessons for the Churches of Christ: 1970 . Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1970.
Woodson,William. Perfecting Faith. Nashville: 20th Century Christian Foundation, 1982.
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