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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Thessalonians, the First Epistle of Paul to the
1. Luke's Narrative in Acts
2. Confirmation of Luke's Narrative in the Epistle
1. Paul's Past and Present Relations with the Thessalonians and His Love for Them
2. Exhortations against Vice, and Comfort and Warning in View of the Coming of Christ
I. The Importance of the Epistle.
The letter is especially important as a witness to the content of the earliest Gospel, on account of its date and its well-nigh unchallenged authenticity. According to Harnack it was written in the year 48 AD; according to Zahn, in the year 53. It is likely that these two dates represent the extreme limits. We are thus justified in saying with confidence that we have before us a document that could not have been written more than 24 years, and may very easily have been written but 19 years, after the ascension of our Lord. This is a fact of great interest in view of the contention that the Jesus of the four Gospels is a product of the legend-making propensity of devout souls in the latter part of the 1st century. When we remember that Paul was converted more than 14 years before the writing of the Epistles, and that he tells us that his conversion was of such an overwhelming nature as to impel him in a straight course from which he never varied, and when we note that at the end of 14 years Peter and John, having fully heard the gospel which he preached, had no corrections to offer (Galatians 1:11-2:10 , esp. Galatians 2:6-10 ), we see that the view of Christ and His messagegiven in this Epistle traces itself back into the very presence of the most intimate friends of Jesus. It is not meant by this that the words of Paul or the forms of his teaching are reproductions of things Jesus said in the days of His flesh, but rather that the conception which is embodied in the Epistle of the person of Christ and of His relation to the Father, and of His relation also to the church and to human destiny, is rooted in Christ's own self-revelation.
II. Circumstances of the Founding of the Church.
1. Luke's Narrative in Acts:
For the founding of the church we have two sources of information, the Book of Acts and the Epistle itself. Luke's narrative is found in Acts 17 . Here we are told that Paul, after leaving Philippi, began his next siege against entrenched paganism in the great market center of Thessalonica. He went first into the synagogues of the Jews, and for three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures. Some of them, Luke tells us, "were persuaded, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few." This very naturally excited the jealousy of the Jews who found themselves losing the social prestige that came from having a large number of Greeks, including some of the nobility, resorting to them for instruction. Accordingly, they raised a mob of the worst men in town and brought the leading members of the church before the magistrate. These brethren, Jason and certain others, who seem to have been men of some property, were compelled to give bond to preserve the peace, and the intense feeling against Paul made it necessary for him, for the sake of these brethren as well as for his personal safety, to flee from the city.
2. Confirmation of Luke's Narrative in the Epistle:
The historicity of Luke's story of the founding of the church is strongly supported by the text of the Epistle. Paul, for instance, notes that the work in Thessalonica began after they had been shamefully entreated at Philippi (1 Thessalonians 2:2 ). He bears witness also in the same verse to the conflict in the midst of which the Thessalonian church was founded (see also 1 Thessalonians 2:14 ). Paul's exhortation to salute all the brethren with a holy kiss, his solemn adjuration that this letter be read unto all the brethren (1 Thessalonians 5:26 , 1 Thessalonians 5:27 ), and his exhortation to despise not prophesying (1 Thessalonians 5:20 ) are harmonious with Luke's account of the very diverse social elements out of which the church was formed: diversities that would very easily give rise to a disposition on the part of the more aristocratic to neglect the cordial greetings to the poorer members, and to despise their uncouth testimonies to the grace of God that had come to them (Acts 17:4 ).
Paul tells us that he was forced to labor for his daily bread at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ). Luke does not make mention of this, but he tells us of his work at tent-making in the next town where he made a considerable stop (Acts 18:1-3 ), and thus each statement makes the other probable.
Perhaps, however, the most marked corroboration of the Acts which we have in the letter is the general harmony of its revelation of the character of Paul with that of the Acts. The reminiscences of Paul's work among them (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 ) correspond, for instance, in a marked way, in essence though not in style and vocabulary, with Luke's report of Paul's account of the method and spirit of his work at Ephesus (Acts 20:17-35). This, however, is only one of many correspondences which could be pointed out and which will at once be evident to anyone who will read the letter, and then go over Acts 13 through 28.
It may seem irrelevant thus to emphasize the historicity of Acts in an article on Thessalonians, but the witness of the Epistle to the historicity of the Gospels and of Acts is for the present moment one of its most important functions.
III. Conditions in the Thessalonian Church as Indicated in the Letter.
There were, however, shadows in the picture. Some persons were whispering dark suspicions against Paul. Perhaps, as Zahn suggests, they were the unbelieving husbands of the rich ladies who had become members of the church. It was in answer to these criticisms that he felt called upon to say that he was not a fanatic nor a moral leper, nor a deceiver (1 Thessalonians 2:3 ). When he is so careful to remind them that he was not found at any time wearing a cloak of covetousness, but rather went to the extreme of laboring night and day that he might not be chargeable to any of them (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ), we may be sure that the Christians were hearing constant jibes about their money-making teacher who had already worked his scheme with the Philippians so successfully that they had twice sent him a contribution (Philippians 4:16 ). Paul's peculiar sensitiveness on this point at Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:14 , 1 Corinthians 9:15 ) was possibly in part the result of his immediately preceding experiences at Thessalonica.
One wonders whether Greece was not peculiarly infested at this time with wandering philosophers and religious teachers who beat their way as best they could, living on the credulity of the unwary.
Paul's anxiety to assure them of his intense desire to see them and his telling of his repeated attempts to come to them (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 ) show rather plainly also that his absence had given rise to the suspicion that he was afraid to come back, or indeed quite indifferent about revisiting them. "We would fain have come unto you," he says, "I Paul once and again; and Satan hindered us."
Some also were saying that Paul was a flatterer (1 Thessalonians 2:5 ), who was seeking by this means to carry out unworthy ends. This sneer indeed, after the reading of the letter, would come quite naturally to the superficial mind. Paul's amazing power to idealize his converts and see them in the light of their good intentions and of the general goal and trend of their minds is quite beyond the appreciation of a shallow and sardonic soul.
More than this, we can see plain evidence that the church was in danger of the chronic heathen vice of unchastity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 ). The humble members also, in particular, were in danger of being intoxicated by the new intellectual and spiritual life into which they had been inducted by the gospel, and were spending their time in religious meetings to the neglect of their daily labor (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12 ). Moreover, some who had lost friends since their baptism were mourning lest at the second coming of Christ these who had fallen asleep would not share in the common glory (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ). This is a quaint proof of the immaturity of their view of Christ, as though a physical accident could separate from His love and care. There was likewise, as suggested above, the ever-present danger of social cliques among the members (1 Thessalonians 5:13 , 1 Thessalonians 5:15 , 1 Thessalonians 5:20 , 1 Thessalonians 5:26 , 1 Thessalonians 5:27 ). It is to this condition of things that Paul pours forth this amazingly vital and human Epistle.
IV. Analysis of the Epistle.
The letter may be divided in several ways. Perhaps as simple a way as any is that which separates it into two main divisions.
First, Paul's past and present relations with the Thessalonians, and his love for them (1 Thessalonians 1:1 through 3:13):
1. Paul's Past and Present Relations with the Thessalonians and His Love for Them:
(1) Greeting and Thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 ).
(2) Paul reminds them of the character of his life and ministry among them (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 ).
(3) The sufferings of the Thessalonians the same as those endured by their Jewish brethren (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 ).
(4) Paul's efforts to see them (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 ).
(5) Paul's surrender of his beloved helper in order to learn the state of the Thessalonian church, and his joy over the good news which Timothy brought (1 Thessalonians 3:1-13 ).
Second, exhortations against vice, and comfort and warning in view of the coming of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:1 through 5:28):
2. Exhortations against Vice, and Comfort and Warning in View of the Coming of Christ:
(1) Against gross vice (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ).
(2) Against idleness (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ).
(3) Concerning those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ).
(4) Concerning the true way to watch for the Coming (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ).
(5) Sundry exhortations (1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 ).
V. Doctrinal Implications of the Epistle.
The Epistle to the Thessalonians is not a doctrinal letter. Paul's great teaching concerning salvation by faith alone, apart from the works of the Law, is not sharply defined or baldly stated, and the doctrine of the cross of Christ as central in Christianity is here implied rather than enforced. Almost the only doctrinal statement is that which assures them that those of their number who had fallen asleep would not in any wise be shut out from the rewards and glories at Christ's second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ). But while the main doctrinal positions of Paul are not elaborated or even stated in the letter, it may safely be said that the Epistle could scarcely have been written by one who denied those teachings. And the fact that we know that shortly before or shortly after Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians, and the fact that he so definitely describes his attitude at this very time toward the preaching of the cross of Christ, in his reminiscences in 1 Corinthians (see especially 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ), show how foolish it is to assume that an author has not yet come to a position because he does not constantly obtrude it in all that he writes.
The Epistle, however, bears abundant evidence to the fact that this contemporary of Jesus had seen in the life and character and resurrection of Jesus that which caused him to exalt Him to divine honors, to mention Him in the same breath with God the Father, and to expect His second coming in glory as the event which would determine the destiny of all men and be the final goal of history. As such the letter, whose authenticity is now practically unquestioned, is a powerful proof that Jesus was a personality as extraordinary as the Jesus of the first three Gospels. And even the Christ of the Fourth Gospel is scarcely more exalted than He who now with God the Father constitutes the spiritual atmosphere in which Christians exist (1 Thessalonians 1:1 ), and who at the last day will descend from heaven with a shout and with the voice of an archangel and the trump of God, and cause the dead in Christ to rise from their tombs to dwell forever with Himself (1 Thessalonians 4:16 , 1 Thessalonians 4:17 ).
VI. The Epistle's Revelations of Paul's Characteristics.
We notice in the letter the extreme tactfulness of Paul. He has some plain and humiliating warnings to give, but he precedes them in each case with affectionate recognition of the good qualities of the brethren. Before he warns against gross vice he explains that he is simply urging them to continue in the good way they are in. Before he urges them to go to work he cordially recognizes the love that has made them linger so long and so frequently at the common meeting-places. And when in connection with his exhortations about the second coming he alludes to the vice of drunkenness, he first idealizes them as sons of the light and of the day to whom, of course, the drunken orgies of those who are "of the night" would be unthinkable. Thus by a kind of spiritual suggestion he starts them in the right way.
Bishop Alexander, the Speaker's Commentary (published in America under the title, The Bible Comm. , and bound with most excellent commentaries on all of the Pauline Epistles), New York, Scribners; Milligan, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (the Greek text with Introduction and notes), London, Macmillan; Moffatt, The Expositor's Greek Test. (bound with commentaries by various authors on the Pastoral Epistles, Philemon, Hebrews and James), New York, Dodd, Mead and Co.; Frame,
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Thessalonians, the First Epistle of Paul to the'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/t/thessalonians-the-first-epistle-of-paul-to-the.html. 1915.