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New Testament: 1 Thessalonians

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Summary

Saint PaulThe Apostle Paul and his associates write a tender pastoral letter to believers in Thessalonica to reaffirm their strong faith, strengthen their ground for hope, encourage them in holy living, and instruct them about the coming of the Lord Jesus. The letter affords glimpses into the most affectionate aspects of Paul's pastoral and theological guidance to a church he helped found. The themes of future hope and expectant anticipation of Christ's return are prevalent in this letter.

So What?

This letter offers an intimate view into Paul's concern for a young and embattled community of faith. The theological guidance Paul gives consistently calls the Thessalonian believers to live in a distinctive way and to cultivate a fellowship of faith, hope, and love. This is not a gospel message that compels people to ignore or forsake the world; instead it calls them to live in it with a distinctively Christian hope.

Where Do I Find It?

Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is the thirteenth book in the New Testament. It is situated in the midst of the "Pauline corpus," the collection of letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (the books of Romans through Philemon).

Who Wrote It?

The opening words of 1 Thessalonians identify the authors as the coworkers Paul, Silvanus (identified as Silas in the book of Acts), and Timothy. The Apostle Paul appears to have been the principal writer, but it is noteworthy that the letter almost always speaks in the voice of multiple authors (using pronouns such as "we," "us," and "our").

When Was It Written?

Of all the surviving letters written by the Apostle Paul, 1 Thessalonians is very likely the first to have been written. This also makes 1 Thessalonians the oldest book in the New Testament. It was written in the early 50s, probably in 51 C.E.

What's It About?

The Apostle Paul and his associates write a tender pastoral letter to believers in Thessalonica to reaffirm their strong faith, strengthen their ground for hope, encourage them in holy living, and instruct them about the coming of the Lord.

How Do I Read It?

As with any other New Testament epistle, to read 1 Thessalonians is to read someone else's mail. Paul and his coworkers had a preexisting relationship with the believers in Thessalonica, and this letter is only one piece of their ongoing communications over a span of time. The letter itself yields clues about the circumstances that prompted Paul and the others to write it, and the content of the letter addresses certain "hot-button" issues that were probably concerns for the members of the church in Thessalonica.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

I. Introduction (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy greet the Thessalonians and praise them for their exemplary faith, hope, and love.


II. Remembrance, Celebration, and Thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 2:1-3:13)
The authors warmly recall their past encounters with the Thessalonians, rejoice in the Thessalonians' persisting faith and love, and beseech God to strengthen them in holiness.


III. Living a Life of Holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:1-12)
Paul and his associates instruct their readers concerning sexual morals, love for one another, and their behavior toward "outsiders."


IV. On the Coming of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11)
The Thessalonians receive encouragement concerning those among them who have died in advance of the Lord's return. Their expectant hope concerning Jesus' coming should result in watchful confidence.


V. Commands for Daily Living (1 Thessalonians 5:12-24)
As the Thessalonians continue to live in the world, holding to the hope of Christ's return and their own holiness before God, the authors exhort them about life in Christian community. The passage concludes with a benediction that claims that God is the one who sanctifies and keeps believers.


VI. Concluding Words and Benediction (1 Thessalonians 5:25-28)
The letter concludes briefly with blessings and final requests.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

The epistle itself provides the best evidence for constructing the background of this communication between the authors and the church in Thessalonica. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy write to the Thessalonian Christians after having been away from their city for an indeterminate amount of time. During a previous visit, some of the Thessalonian Gentiles had warmly welcomed Paul and the others, and had "turned to God from idols" (1:9; see also 2:13). After leaving Thessalonica and being "made orphans by being separated from" the Thessalonians (2:17), Paul and his associates had somehow been unsuccessful in their attempts to return to the city (2:18). From Athens, they sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonian church, perhaps to see how its members were withstanding persecution. Timothy returned to Athens pleased to report about the Thessalonian church's continuing faithfulness (3:1-7). Timothy's report concurred with the general reputation of the Thessalonians as people with a vibrant faith (1:7-9). This epistle comes after Timothy had returned to Paul and Silas with the good news, allowing the authors to rejoice in the Thessalonians' perseverance, to encourage them, and to give instruction on a few issues that may have been of particular concern in Thessalonica.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

  • Absence of Scripture. Unusual for a letter from Paul, 1 Thessalonians includes no quotations of biblical texts.
  • Challenges faced by the Thessalonians. This letter suggests that the Thessalonian believers had a difficult existence in their city. Being a Christian in a city whose culture and atmosphere were so closely linked to Roman and Greek politics and religion would have made the members of the church appear odd and almost seditious. In a number of ways, 1 Thessalonians acknowledges the challenges that first-century believers faced in their cultural environment. Such challenges, in various forms, have been a part of Christian existence throughout much of the church's history all over the world.
  • Expecting Jesus' immediate return. When Paul, describing the event of Jesus' coming in 4:17, refers to "we who are alive, who are left," he appears to indicate that he expects still to be living at the return of Jesus Christ. The first generations of Christians apparently had little reason not to assume that Jesus' coming was imminent. Nevertheless, there is something about the day of the Lord that is unpredictable: it "will come like a thief in the night" (5:2).
  • Paul's pastoral presence. People often characterize the Apostle Paul as one who writes dense theological ideas or severe instructions and injunctions. This letter to the Thessalonians reveals affectionate dimensions of Paul and the pastoral presence he sought to provide to churches via his letters. The first three chapters of 1 Thessalonians display the love and concern that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy have for these people. In 2:7 they even compare their care for the Thessalonians to a mother's gentle nurturing of her children.
  • What really happened in Thessalonica? The book of Acts (17:1-9) describes Paul and Silas (Silvanus), but not Timothy, visiting Thessalonica for the first time, but the details of that account are not the same as those given in 1 Thessalonians. Acts describes the Christian missionaries persuading and facing hostility from Jewish audiences in the city, while 1 Thessalonians remembers Paul and the others working with Gentile audiences (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 2:14-16).

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

  • Hope. The authors frequently mention hope and its basis (1:3; 2:19; 4:13; 5:8). This idea of hope is closely and specifically connected to the expectation of Jesus' coming and to the promise of believers' own resurrection from the dead.
  • Imitation. The first two chapters of the letter speak of imitating the behavior and example of other Christians. Imitation is a common theme in Paul's writings.
  • Jesus' second coming. Four times (2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23) the authors make reference to Jesus' coming (parousia in Greek). This future event gives a foundation for Christian hope and calls believers to be alert and to live a life consistent with God's holiness.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament