Introduction to 1 Thesslonians
Another day, another letter. We're flying through them pretty fast these days since they're shorter - today it's on to 1 Thessalonians!
The letters to the Thessalonians aren't nearly as well-known as a lot of the other NT epistles, so I'm going to give a fair amount of introductory material today. If you have any specific questions on something in today's reading, be sure to let me know!
"INTRODUCTION TO THE THESSALONIAN LETTERS
The City of Thessalonica
1. Brief History of Thessalonica
a. Thessalonica was located at the head of the Thermaic Gulf. Thessalonica was a coastal town on the major Roman road, Via Ignatia (the way of the nations), running eastward from Rome. A seaport, it was also very close to a rich, well-watered, coastal plain. These three advantages made Thessalonica the largest, most important commercial and political center in Macedonia.
b. Thessalonica was originally named Therma, derived from the hot springs located in the area. An early historian, Pliny the Elder, refers to Therma and Thessalonica existing together. If this is the case, Thessalonica simply surrounded Therma and annexed it (Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians , Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991, p. 11). Yet most historians believe Cassander, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, renamed Therma in 315 B.C. after Philip of Macedonia’s daughter and Alexander’s half-sister and his wife, Thessalonica (Strabo VII Fragment 21). Sometime during the early centuries of the spread of Christianity, Thessalonica came to be nicknamed “the orthodox city” because of its Christian character (Dean Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul , New York: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1904, p. 364). Today Thessalonica is known as Salonika and it still is an important city in Greece.
c. Thessalonica was a cosmopolitan metropolis similar to Corinth, inhabited by peoples from all over the known world.
(1) Barbaric Germanic peoples from the north were living there, bringing with them their pagan religion and culture.
(2) Greeks lived there, coming from Achaia to the south and from the islands of the Aegean Sea, in turn bringing their refinement and philosophy.
(3) Romans from the west also settled there. They were mostly retired soldiers and they brought their strength of will, wealth and political power.
(4) Finally, Jews came in large numbers from the east; eventually one third of the population was Jewish. They brought with them their ethical monotheistic faith and their national prejudices.
d. Thessalonica, with a population of about 200,000, was truly a cosmopolitan city . It was a resort and health center because of the hot springs. It was a commercial center because of its seaport, fertile plains and the proximity of the Ignatian Way.
e. As the capital and largest city, Thessalonica was also the central political headquarters of Macedonia. Being a Roman provincial capital and home of many Roman citizens (mostly retired soldiers), it became a free city. Thessalonica paid no tribute and was governed by Roman law, since most Thessalonians were Roman citizens. Thus the Thessalonian rulers were called “politarchs.” This title appears nowhere else in literature but it is preserved by an inscription over the triumphal arch at Thessalonica known as the Vardar Gate (Farrar, p. 371n.).
2. Events Leading to Paul’s Coming to Thessalonica
a. Many events led Paul to Thessalonica, yet behind all the physical circumstances is the direct, definite call of God. Paul had not originally planned to enter the European continent. But his desire on this second missionary journey was to revisit the churches in Asia Minor that he had established on his first journey and then to turn eastward. Yet, just as the moment arrived to turn northeastward, God started closing the doors. The culmination of this was Paul’s Macedonian vision (cf. Acts 16:6–10). This caused two things to happen: first, the continent of Europe was evangelized and second, Paul, because of circumstances in Macedonia, began writing his Epistles (Thomas Carter, Life and Letters of Paul , Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1921, p. 112).
b. After noting the above spiritual direction, the physical circumstances that led Paul to Thessalonica were:
(1) Paul went to Philippi, a small town with no synagogue. His work there was thwarted by the owners of a prophetic, demonic slave girl and the town council. Paul was beaten and humiliated yet a church was formed even in the midst of all this. Because of the opposition and physical punishment, Paul was forced to leave, possibly sooner than he had wished.
(2) Where would he go from there? He passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia that also had no synagogue,
(3) He came to the largest city in the area, Thessalonica, which did have a synagogue. Paul had made it a pattern to go to the local Jews first. He did this because:
(a) of their knowledge of the Old Testament;
(b) of the opportunity for teaching and preaching that the synagogue presented;
(c) of their position as the chosen people, God’s covenant people (cf. Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Rom. 1:16–17; 9–11);
(d) Jesus had offered Himself first to them, then to the world—so too, Paul would follow Christ’s example.
Paul’s Ministry in the City
a. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica followed his usual pattern of going to the Jews first and then turning to the Gentiles. Paul preached on three Sabbaths in the synagogue. His message was “Jesus is the Messiah.” He used Old Testament Scriptures to show that the Messiah was to be a suffering Messiah (cf. Gen. 3:15; Isa. 53), and not a political temporal Messiah. Paul also emphasized the resurrection and offered salvation to all. Jesus was clearly presented as the Messiah promised of old that could save all peoples.
b. The response to this message was that some Jews, many devout Gentiles, and many important women accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. An analysis of these groups of converts is very meaningful in understanding Paul’s later letters to this church.
c. Gentiles comprised most of the members of the church, seen by the absence of allusions to the OT in either of the two epistles. The Gentiles readily accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord for several reasons:
(1) Their traditional religions were powerless superstition. Thessalonica lay at the foot of Mt. Olympus and all knew its heights were empty.
(2) The gospel was free to all.
(3) Christianity contained no Jewish exclusive nationalism. The Jewish religion had attracted many because of its monotheism and its high morals, but it also repelled many because of its repugnant ceremonies (such as circumcision), and its inherent racial and national prejudices.
d. Many “chief women” accepted Christianity, because of these women’s abilities to make their own religious choices. Women were more free in Macedonia and Asia Minor than in the rest of the Greco-Roman world (Sir Wm. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen , New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896, p. 227). Yet the poorer class of women, although free, were still under the sway of superstition and polytheism (Ramsay, p. 229).
e. Many have found a problem in the length of time that Paul stayed at Thessalonica:
(1) Acts 17:2 speaks of Paul’s reasoning in the synagogue on three Sabbaths while in Thessalonica.
(2) I Thess. 2:7–11 tells of Paul’s working at his trade. This was tent-making or as some have suggested working with leather.
(3) Phil. 4:16 supports the longer residence, when Paul received at least two money gifts from the church at Philippi while in Thessalonica. The distance between the two cities is about 100 miles. Some suggest that Paul stayed about two or three months and that the three Sabbaths only refer to the ministry to the Jews (Shepard, p. 165).
(4) The differing accounts of the converts in Acts 17:4 and I Thess. 1:9 and 2:4 support this view, the key difference in the accounts being the rejection of idols by the Gentiles. The Gentiles in Acts were Jewish proselytes and had already turned from idols. The context implies Paul may have had a larger ministry among pagan Gentiles than Jews.
(5) When a larger ministry might have occurred is uncertain because Paul always went to the Jews first. After they rejected his message, he turned to the Gentiles. When they responded to the gospel in large numbers, the Jews became jealous and started a riot among the rabble of the city.
f. Because of a riot Paul left Jason’s house and hid with Timothy and Silas or at least they were not present when the mob stormed Jason’s house looking for them. The Politarchs made Jason put up a security bond to insure peace. This caused Paul to leave the city by night and go to Berea. Nevertheless, the church continued its witness of Christ in the face of much opposition.
PURPOSE OF THE LETTERS
A. The Thessalonian Letters have a threefold purpose:
1. to share Paul’s joy and thanksgiving to God for the faithfulness and Christlikeness of the Thessalonians, even amidst persecution.
2. to answer the criticism of his motives and character which had been brought against him.
3. to discuss the return of the Lord. This eschatological element of Paul’s preaching caused two questions in the minds of the Thessalonian Christians:
a. What would happen to believers who had died before the Lord’s return?
b. What would happen to the believers in the congregation who had stopped working and were sitting around waiting for the Lord’s return (Barclay, pp. 21–22).
B. Much of the above can be explained by the fact that this was a young and very zealous church. Yet because of the circumstances, they were imperfectly trained and disciplined. These problems represent what would be expected of a church of this nature: the new believers, the weak, the fainthearted, the idle, the visionary, and the puzzled.
C. The occasion for II Thessalonians was, “It is simply a second prescription for the same case, made after discovering that certain stubborn symptoms had not yielded to the first treatment.” (Walker, p. 2968)"