The First Epistle to the Thessalonians
Read or listen the First Epistle to the Thessalonians online (ESV, Bible Gateway)
Thessalonica is one of the great cities of present-day Greece. It is in the province of Macedonia, on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea. In the first century, Thessalonica was the largest city in Macedonia. Running through it was a Roman military road, Via Egnatia, an important east-west route. A good port added to Thessalonica’s importance, making Thessalonica a busy trading city.
There were Jews living in every big city of the Roman Empire. In Thessalonica, there was quite a considerable number of them. An indication of this is that the Jews of Thessalonica had their own synagogue. The proclamation of the Jews attracted great interest among the Gentiles. This was also the case in Thessalonica. There was a number of so-called God-fearing people in the city. That was the name used for those Gentiles who honored the God of Israel and who obeyed certain commandments of God. However, they had not converted to Judaism nor, as a sign of it, had they had circumcision.
Chapter 17 of Acts tells us about Paul's first visit to Thessalonica. Paul arrived in the city from Philippi, where he ministered with Silas. As a result of their ministry, a church was born in Philippi. However, Paul's ministry there was cut short. He and Silas were imprisoned and told to leave the city. The missionaries moved to Thessalonica, which is about 100 kilometres from Philippi.
Every Jewish man had the opportunity to take part in reading and explaining the Holy Scriptures during synagogue worship (see Luke 4:16-21). Paul took advantage of this opportunity in Thessalonica. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and by explaining the law and the prophets, showed that Jesus is God’s promised Christ, the Messiah. This happened on three Sabbaths. Paul’s sermon brought forth faith in the listeners; some Jews and many God-fearing people acknowledged Jesus as Christ, the promised Messiah.
This was too much for some Jews. They took action against Paul, incited the people, staged a demonstration, and claimed that the preachers were stirring up a rebellion. To prevent Paul falling into the hands of a wild crowd, the congregation was forced to send him and Silas to continue their journey under the cover of night. They arrived in Beroia, where they continued ministering.
However, the rage of the Thessalonian Jews against Paul and Silas was so great that they sent men even to Beroia to incite people against Paul. The men were successful in it. The apostle had to leave this city too and move to Athens. In Thessalonica, Paul could preach the gospel only for a few weeks. His ministry was thus badly interrupted, and they did not have enough time for the church to receive thorough teaching on the Christian faith and life. After the apostle left, the church looked like completely abandoned.
Clearly, Paul was concerned about the Thessalonians. He had reason to even fear that it could die — after all, it had been left alone amid persecution. That is why Paul sent Timothy from Athens back north. Timothy was to visit Thessalonica, find out about the state of the church and strengthen it in the faith in Jesus, if the church was still alive. When Timothy was on his journey, Paul moved to Corinth. The young helper returned from Thessalonica with great news: The Thessalonian church is alive, well, and even stands as a good example for others. Timothy also brought a few questions that puzzled the Thessalonian Christians.
In particular, the Thessalonians were concerned about the fate of dead church members: What happens to the Christians who die before Jesus returns? Will they go to heaven? Paul longed to go back to Thessalonica. Now, however, it was not possible. The only way to keep in touch with that church and answer the questions brought by Timothy was to send a letter from Corinth to Thessalonica. Apparently, this happened in the late winter of the year 50.
The First Letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest of Paul's letters that have come down to us. In fact, it is the oldest book in the New Testament. The First Thessalonians is a warm letter – after all, Paul is in it greeting a church that is very dear to him. Together with the Letter to the Philippians, the First Thessalonians is considered the most warm-hearted book of the New Testament.