Introduction to First Thessalonians

cf. First Thessalonians 1:1

Notes by Doug V. Heck

A special person wrote a special letter to a special people. The special person is identified as Paul, a genuine man of humility who desired to glorify the Lord and encourage these new believers; the special letter is the 89 verses known as 1 Thessalonians, an epistle to commend them in their new faith, vindicate the challenges against the Apostle's motives, and exhort them to grow in maturity; and the special people are the Thessalonian Christians, a people recently rescued from Greek Hellenistic ideals and their own sin, whose union with God the Father and God the Son resulted in divine favor and harmonious peace.(1)

Introduction

1. The Church at Thessalonica. On Paul's second missionary journey through Asia, he experienced a vision from the Lord, directing him to cross the Aegean Sea and embark on a mission campaign in Europe. Following the Via Egnatia Roman highway, they first ministered at Philippi and passed through the smaller cities of Amphipolis and Apollonia, arriving at Thessalonica. Here Paul's brief stay resulted in the founding of the church (cf. Acts 17:1-4) and persecution (Act 17:5-10). Following the Thessalonian campaign, Paul and Silas tried to set up a ministry base at Berea, which was again challenged by the envious Jews of Thessalonica. Although Silas and Timothy remained at Berea, Paul was forced to journey to Athens, where he gave his famous Mars Hill sermon but experienced little by way of ministry success. Then from Athens he journeyed to Corinth.(2)

2. The Background for Thessalonians. Obviously, Paul would be concerned for the newly founded church in Thessalonica, so he sent Timothy to establish them (1 Thess. 3:1,2) who returned to the Apostle in Corinth and gave an encouraging report (3:6-7). Can you imagine how Paul must have felt upon hearing that good news? He was forced to leave Thessalonica, without seeing the real results of his ministry, and God in His encouraging providence, gets Paul the information that would be just what his spirit needed, i.e. confirmation that his ministry was not fruitless! When your ministry seems to be stalled and pointless, keep faithful and in the Lord's time He will confirm that He was doing wonderful things which you knew nothing about.

Paul realized that a visit was impossible (2:18), so he wrote this epistle of commendation

3. The Salutation to the Thessalonians.

The Author of the Epistle
- Paul, Silvanus and Timothy -

Does this mean all three men co-authored this letter? Sometimes Paul would write a letter and mention only his name in the salutation.(3) But sometimes he would include others, who no doubt would be supportive of what he was writing about.(4) For example, in Galatians 1:1 he introduces the epistle with, "Paul, an apostle (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ...And all the brethren who are with me." These "brethren who are with me" would represent those who ministered alongside Paul, who were in agreement with his ministry and supportive of the contents of the Galatian Epistle message. But they didn't act as co-authors or editors, for this is Paul's letter. And this he does when writing the two Thessalonian epistles.

Although three names are placed in the salutation, it is obvious that this epistle is Paul's in a special sense. This was not a joint effort of co-authorship, but the Apostle's words as he was "moved by the Holy Spirit." (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21) The vocabulary, style, doctrine and emotion are all characteristic of the Apostle to the Gentiles. No doubt as the Thessalonian believers received this epistle, they would understand that Paul was writing them a personal letter, which Silas and Timothy supported with conviction.

As we begin we need to remember to read this epistle through the eyes of the Thessalonians. How would they receive its message, is preliminary to a precise understanding of the text. So lets zero in on these three men and identify them according to the Thessalonian perspective. The first man mentioned, is of course...

A. Paul. By the way, in careful methodical Bible study we observe not only what is there, but what is not there, which normally you would expect to be there. It is significant that the title Apostle is absent from the salutation of Paul's epistles to the Macedonian churches, i.e. 1 & 2 Thessalonians and Philippians. Evidently, Paul's closeness to these believers and the fact that his authority was never seriously challenged, eliminated the need to identify himself as an apostle. So let's focus on the name Paul . "As a Roman citizen, Paul had three names - praenomen (first name), nomen or nomen gentile (family name) and cognomen (additional name or surname) ... We know only his cognomen, Paullus in Latin."(5) In addition to his surname, we know only his, Jewish name - Saul. No doubt his parents named him after Israel's first king (compare 1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23 with Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5).(6) But he comes down through history as Paullus, " the little one ," because he had someone else to glorify, i.e. Jesus Christ! Despite the training, gifts, drive and impact of his ministry, he desired to glorify the Lord Jesus instead of himself. His very name, "the little one," stands as a constant rebuke to the many television and radio preachers who want to build up their own name. Fellow teacher of the Word of God, work hard at pointing to Jesus and work hard at humility . Don't constantly use yourself as the hero of your lesson illustrations, or portray yourself as some spiritual giant. The Apostle didn't, he desired to be known as "the little one," because he had someone else that he wanted to be lifted up! Now let's zero in on the second man...

B. Silvanus . Luke calls him Silus, but Paul called him Silvanus, who was Paul's missionary companion during the second journey. Later he acted as Peter's amanuensis or scribal secretary for his first letter. (cf. 1 Peter 5:12). Silvanus meets us on the pages of Scripture as a reliable and faithful man. The first we hear of him in the NT, he is one of two men selected to journey with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch and deliver the brief epistle concerning the Jerusalem council's decision of Acts 15. He is there referred to as one of the "chief men" of the Jerusalem church, which would rank him high in respect among the Apostles and elders there. (cf. Acts 15:25-27) Following that important mission, he is next found reliable and faithful to replace Barnabas as Paul's missionary companion on the second journey. He was a man to be trusted, someone you could rely upon for a difficult task. I'm reminded of Cicero who said, "The shifts of Fortune test the reliability of friends."(7) And Paul found that he could trust his reliable friend Silvanus, and so could the Thessalonians!

So, while the name "Paul" reminds us of a humble

C. Timothy.

But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel. Him therefore I hope to send presently, so soon as I shall see how it will go with me.(cf. Phil. 2:19-23)

Letters written by extraordinary people carry weight! When the Thessalonians unrolled the scroll of this parchment, they would understand from the first sentence that this epistle was written by their humble spiritual mentor, Paul, who desired to glorify Jesus Christ above everything else; they would understand that a reliable and faithful companion, Silvanus, joined with the Apostle in a bond of agreement; and they would understand that a sacrificial man who was genuinely concerned for them, Timothy, was also standing in the background nodding his approval with the message. When we also read this letter, let's understand the particular origin, that "holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21) These were men of integrity and established character credentials - writing to them as well as us! But not only are the authors identified, but the recipients are identified...

The Recipients of the Epistle
- the Church of the Thessalonians -

One of the imperative keys to careful methodical Bible study is understanding the historical background of a Biblical book. This helps us recreate the thinking of the people, to whom that document was first written. Without this mental discipline, we read too many of our contemporary situations back into the text, and the Bible becomes my own personal world of fantasy! No, we need to identify the historical background to get to the precise meaning of a Biblical text. And in 1 Thessalonians the Apostle Paul gives us two major areas necessary identification...

A. The People - Thessalonians. First, let's identify the people. The city of Thessalonica was founded in 315 B.C. by Cassander who had been a general under Alexander the Great. Cassander had killed Alexander's mother, Olympias, because she opposed him after her son's death. Evidently Cassander sought political refuge by marriage of Alexander's half-sister Thessalonica. Some suggest that the ancient site of Therma (i.e. , hot springs), was hence renamed Thessalonica after Cassander's wife.(9) Situated on the northernmost point of the Thermaic Gulf, on the Egnatian Way, a short distance from the Axius river, Thessalonica became an important center of commerce.(10) Cicero spoke of it as "lying in the lap of the empire," Meletius comments, "So long as nature does not change, Thessalonica will remain wealthy and fortunate." Thessalonica was the seat of the Roman government for all Macedonia since 146 B.C. and was called "the mother of all Macedon." Because the city stood with Anthony and Octavian during the civil war of Rome (42 B.C.), Augustus rewarded the loyalty by making it a "free city" with power of internal self government. Today the city is known as Salonika with a population of 250,920 people.(11)

Important for our understanding of the Thessalonian epistles, is an understanding of the culture of Thessalonica itself. This was a Greek city, with cherished Hellenistic values: free speech, self-government, a philosophical heritage, and idolatrous religions. Into this self-sufficient proud city, came the gospel which challenged their cultural distinctive to the core: instead of extolling free-speech, the gospel's narrow message qualifies it; instead of self-government the gospel demands allegiance to a King, who's every dictate is to be obeyed; instead of the Greek philosophical heritage, the gospel dismisses the wisdom of man as a vain and empty detour, that could lead to hell; and instead of idolatrous religions, the gospel champions a strict one way, narrow road, one God and one command - believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation! The gospel Paul preached confronted the Hellenistic ideals with a radical challenge! But Paul not only identified the people, but identifies an important distinction...

B. The Distinction - Union with God. The Greek word translated church ( ekklesia ) means literally "assembly" and hence could refer to any assembling of people. Yet Paul distinguishes this assembly from: civic or pagan assemblies, addressing his letter to the church in God, the Father; and he distinguished this assembly from the Jewish assemblies, addressing his letter to the church in the Lord Jesus Christ. These "called out ones" are distinct from all other groups, by virtue of their union with the Father and the Son!(12)

Union with God the Father and union with God the Son distinguishes the church from all other groups. It sets us apart from civic groups and religious groups. And I think we often take the concept of "church" - the called out ones, too lightly. We need to realize that we are to be a distinctive people, called to a special service, separated from the world by union with God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ. And then notice how Paul greets these special people...

The Greeting of the Epistle
- grace and peace -

A. Grace be unto you. The normal Greek greeting was chairein , translated greeting in KJV) :

And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. (cf. Acts 15:23)

Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting. (Cf. Acts 23:26)

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting. (James 1:1)

Paul changes it into a noun form - charis

B. Peace be unto you.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.(cf. Numbers 6:22-27)

This addition is natural, for when grace is received, there is peace; grace is the fountain and peace the stream (Romans 5:1). Union with God the Father and God the Son results in the constant bestowment of divine favor and harmony in all relationships of life!

Conclusion and Application

A special person wrote a special letter to a special people. The special person was the humble Apostle Paul, who desired to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ in everything he did, whose missionary companions included the reliable and faithful Silvanus, along with the sacrificial and concerned Timothy; the special letter is the epistle to the Thessalonians, 89 verses of commendation, vindication and exhortation, prompted by great news that the Thessalonian believers were growing in their new faith; and the special people were a group of brand new believers whose Hellenistic Greek ideals were shattered by the revolutionary message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and because of their new union with God the Father and God the Son they enjoyed divine favor which produce harmony in life.

Because this epistle came not only from the Apostle Paul's pen, with the support of his two companions, but by the superintending authorship of the Holy Spirit, the recipients include not only the Thessalonian believers, but us today. Through this Word of commendation, vindication and exhortation, the Lord would grant to us further grace and peace. It is our responsibility at the inception of its study, to determine to discover its riches and amend our lives to its message. (cf. 1 Thess. 5:27)

 

Footnotes:

1. These notes are published Grace Bible Church for the use of The Quest of the New Testament radio program, heard each weekday from 9:30-10:00am on KCFO (970 AM). They are free upon request by calling the Church Office at (918) 834-4440.

2. T he Europe mission didn't seem to be going too well! At Philippi they were flogged and jailed, at Thessalonica and Berea they were run out of town, at Athens despite a masterful sermon the results were few, and at Corinth Paul is forced to level an apostolic warning of judgment after the Jewish Corinthians opposition and blasphemy became serious. Acts 18:6 states, that "when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go unto the Gentiles." The Jews would realize Paul's reference to Ezekiel as a watchman warning of impending doom. (cf. Ezekiel 3:17-20; 33:1-6; compare Acts 20:26-27) Paul considered himself a watchman to the Jews of Macedonia and Achaia, who was ignored! No wonder the Lord graciously appeared to him at Corinth, to encourage him to continue the missions campaign. (cf. Acts 18:9-11) Sometimes we look at the nominal results of our ministry and dispair. We wonder, "Is it really worth it? Is it worth the preparation and prayer, the sacrifice and service? Perhaps I should just give up!" But let me encourage you to be persistent. Keep to the stuff of your ministry, faithfully teaching the Word of God. This is what Paul did and the Lord encouraged him and then, sent Timothy with some encouraging news.

3. cf. Romans 1:1 - "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God." Galatians 1:1 - "Paul, an apostle (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead, and all the brethren who are with me..." Ephesians 1:1 - "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus." 1 Timothy 1:1 - "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God, our Savior, and Lord Jesus Christ, who is our hope." 2 Timothy 1:1 - "Paul an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus." Titus 1:1 - "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ."

4. 1 Corinthians 1:1 - "Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother." 2 Corinthians 1:1 - "Paul. an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy, our brother." Philippians 1:1 - "Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus." Colossians 1:1 - "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy, our brother." In both Thessalonian epistles - "Paul, and Silvanus and Timothy." (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1)

5. cf. F.F. Bruce. New Testament History (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1980 edition), p. 235 Bruce explains, "If we knew his nomen gentile, we should have some idea of the circumstances in which his family obtained the citizenship, for newly made citizens usually adopted the family name of their patron - and quite often his praenomen too...Each legitimately born child of a Roman citizen had to be registered within thirty days (apparently) of birth. If he lived in the provinces, his father or some duly appointed agent made a declaration ( professio ) in the appropriate record office ( tabularium publicum ) to the effect that the child was a Roman citizen. This declaration was recorded in the official register ( album professionum ) and the father or his agent received a certified copy in the form of a diptych (folding tablets). This certificate was legal evidence that a man was a Roman citizen. It is conceivable that, on the occasions when Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship, he was able to produce this certificate in confirmation of his claim." p. 235 Unfortunately, we have no record as to how Paul came to be born a Roman citizen. Evidently, his father, grandfather or great-grandfather had rendered some service to the Roman emperor, which resulted in a free, citizen status for the family.

6. Although named after Saul who was physically "taller than any of the people" (cf. 1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23) the Apostle to the Gentiles is known to us as Paul , meaning "the little one." He reminded the Corinthians that "in presence [he was] base among you," and "in bodily presence weak, and his speech contemptible." (cf. 2 Cor. 10:1,10) Philip Schaff summarizes that the oldest extant portraiture of Paul (close of 1st century) was from a large bronze medallion in the cemetery of Domitilla, preserved in the Vatican library. Paul is physically homely, with apparently diseased eyes, open mouth, bald head and short thick beard. Early church father Chrysostom calls Paul the "three-cubit man" or 4 foot 6 inches tall. Renan (Les Apotres, pp. 169) suggested , "His exterior did not correspond to the greatness of his soul. He was ugly, short, stout, plump, of small head, bald, pale, his face covered with a thick beard, an eagle nose, piercing eyes, dark eyebrows. His speech, embarrassed, faulty, gave a poor idea of his eloquence. With rare tact he turned his external defects to advantage." cf. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing House, 1910). p. 295. Some have also suggested that he wanted to be known as Paullus, because he rejected his heredity and natural attainments. As a young Jewish man he struggled to be "head and shoulders above the people" in a mental and spiritual sense. (cf. Galatians 1:13,14) But trashed those personal ambitions, when he gave his life to the Lord. (cf. Phil 3:4-9).

7. cf. De Amicitia, XVII.

8. As the Thessalonians would read this epistle, they would also understand that there is another author, superintending the drafting of these words - the Holy Spirit. (compare: 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21 with 2 Pet. 3:16 - in all his epistles [all Paul's epistles, including 1 Thessalonians] called scriptures ) Because of this superintending Author Paul is not modest of demanding his epistle to be read to all - 1 Thess. 5:27!

9. A better suggestion is that Thessalonica and Therma were close geographically. Therma evidently enjoyed existence on its own.

10. The Via Egnatia was the great Roman highway to the East. Will Durant comments on the importance of the Roman roads, as "the tenacles of Roman law, the members by which the mind of Rome became the will of the realm. They achieved in the ancient world a commercial revolution comparable in kind with that which the railroads effected in the 19th century... the empire had 51,000 miles of paved highways and a pervasive network of secondary roads." cf. Will Durant. Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to A.D. 325. (New York: Simon and Schuster), p. 234. The Apostle Paul made use of the great strategic cities on the Roman roadways, as a beachhead for the gospel.

11. cf. William Benton, Publisher, Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 19, p. 952. The population during Paul's day is estimated at 200,000.

12. The believers at Thessalonica were the first recipients of the epistle, which demands our understanding of the Thessalonians themselves to arrive at honest interpretation. This is what is known as the literal historical grammatical method o f Bible interpretation. And yet we must also understand the epistle has the characteristic of canonic literature and so is set forth as the rule of the saints of all ages. Those united with God the Father and God the Son today, are also the recipients of this epistle!