A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF 1 AND 2 THESSALONIANS
The Apostle Paul’s first known writings may have been the two letters to the newly established church in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica (Carson, p532). Paul has visited there on his second missionary journey as described in Acts 17:1-9 (Lea and Black, p377). This brief outline will discuss the nature of Paul’s time there, opposition he experienced as well as the occasion and purpose of these letters.
Occasion and Purpose of the Letters
Paul’s trip to Thessalonica had been very successful in many ways. Although it was not the first church he would visit and minister to, it appears to be the first recipient of follow up letters. Prior to this city, he had visited many others, yet as far as we know, this is his first writing back to the believers where he had ministered.
Paul had been in Thessalonica for an extended period of time. Luke puts it at a minimum of three weeks but the evidence of his work there implies a much longer time (Lea and Black, p378). While there a large number of Gentiles were converted. He taught on a wide variety of subjects. Also while there he found work to help offset some of his expenses as well as receiving aid from believers at Philippi. These details indicate an extended time of ministry.
After leaving Thessalonica, he continued his trip by visiting Berea, Athens and then Corinth. He stayed in Corinth an even longer time, as long as one and a half years (Blueletterbible.org). It is while in Corinth that Timothy brought Paul a positive report about the on-going ministry in Thessalonica and perhaps some follow-up questions from the believers there (Lea and Black). It was at this time he wrote 1 Thessalonians.
He had at least five goals in this first letter (Lea and Black). First, as always he wanted to encourage the believers he had come to know as they were probably facing persecution for their beliefs. Next, he wrote to answer some criticisms of his motives during his time there. He emphasized that his motives while there were to lead them to the saving knowledge of Christ and now to encourage them in their walk. Third, he wrote to warn them to stay away from behaviors that came from those practicing low moral values that were not Godly. He warned them that the Lord would avenge these behaviors. Fourth, he wrote to comfort them in the death of some of the believers. He encouraged them not to grieve but to look forward to a life with God after death and to Christ’s second coming. These deaths had also led to questions from believers there as to whether Christ had already returned. He addressed that here and in the second letter as well. Lastly, he gave them instruction on the appropriate use of spiritual gifts.
This book was a follow-up guide to remind and reinforce thoughts Paul had probably shared with them during his time there. The letter began with a greeting typical of Paul, the giving of thanks for those in the church and his main points, ending with a prayer for them, a request that they pray for him and a blessing on them. In a way, he was encouraging them in the way he was probably encouraged by the positive report of the church there Timothy shared with him. He clearly intended to encourage and “strengthen the faith of new converts” (Carson, p550).
The reasons for the second letter are not as clear. Perhaps the receipt in Thessalonica of the first letter brought back another report, this one less encouraging. It is also possible that one of Paul’s motivations in writing the second letter involved another letter to the believers there, wrongly attributed to him (Lea and Black, p380). In the final verses of the letter, he encourages the readers to notice his distinctive handwriting and to use that as a measure of whether future letters are truly from him. Whatever the motivation, the second letter seems more about concern than about the encouragement-theme of the first letter. This is a short letter by Paul’s standards, only forty seven verses in total. Of those more than half are about concerns Paul has for the church. It is likely that persecution of Christians there had grown since his visit and his last letter and he want to send them another letter of encouragement.
Overall, Paul had four purposes in this letter (NBST Instructor’s Notes). First he gave them instruction about the final judgment, secondly assuring those that were growing weary of persecution that the Lord had not yet come. Third, he gave them guidance on the discipline for those not following the ways of Christ. And finally, he instructed them on how to authenticate one of his letters. The overall tone of encouragement and support is easy to read in this second letter.
Paul’s Opposition in Thessalonica
Paul’s ministry was not without opposition. He encountered some sort of Jewish opposition in many cities. In Philippi, the city visited before Thessalonica, he and Silas were beaten and thrown into jail. He left Thessalonica in the middle of the night, trying to avoid the same occurrence. Who were these who so opposed his message?
Research on this topic this week didn’t generate the exact detail desired, but it appears these people so determined to oppose him in every city may have been those just like him in his life before conversion on the road to Damascus. These were Jews, loyal to Caesar, dedicated to following Roman law. Time after time, it would be claimed that Paul was violating Roman law, encouraging citizens to be disloyal to Caesar as the excuse for jailing him and those who supported him. Details are more vivid in Acts, written by Luke, than in Paul’s writing on this subject. It may be that Paul didn’t wish these details to distract from his messages in his letters. In Acts 16:21 it details Paul’s opposition by these groups in Philippi. In Acts 17:7 it details the same persecution of Jason, Paul’s host in Thessalonica. A similar story is found even earlier in Acts when Paul visited in Lustra and was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19). They were accused in both instances of behavior that was disloyal to Caesar and illegal in Roman territory. Their attempts to use the fine letter of the law to persecute Christians are strikingly similar to the same behavior exhibited by Paul in his previous life.
These groups of Jews, apparently led by Pharisees in each city, rejected Christ as the Messiah and considered Paul a blasphemer toward their faith. Just as Paul had participated in the stoning of Stephen, a group of that same nature would stone him. When he survived and continued on, he would be followed or persecuted much the same way in many cities. What an interesting circle had appeared in his life that he was now the persecuted one. How similar too is this experience of Paul with that of Christ just a few years before.
Paul’s faith is evidenced by his reaction to these groups who violently opposed him. Although he had left Thessalonica in the middle of the night, this may have been his attempt to prevent the persecution of those that supported him, not just to protect himself. Despite it all, he never faltered in his mission. He carried on. From there he would go directly to Berea, then to Athens, then to Corinth, with no indication he ever even considered giving in to those who opposed him. He kept the faith despite it all.
And he encouraged those reading 2 Thessalonians to do the same. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5 he tells them “you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (NASB, p1822). It almost seems he was empowered by the opposition as he moved from city to city.
“Like a father treats his own children” Paul sought to instruct, comfort and encourage the believers of Thessalonica after his time there (Charles Wanamaker, “Like a Father Treats His Own Children”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, September 1995). He came to their city fresh from near death, jail and continued persecution in the previous cities. Yet he connected with the people and conducted a very successful mission campaign to convert and influence many in the ways of Jesus. There too he would meet opposition and leave hastily to avoid harm to those who supported him. It was on to the next city.
Yet, when hearing first of their continued success then of their persecution, he wrote the first two of what would become perhaps the world’s most famous, beloved and studied letters. Paul’s upbringing, education and personal endurance all came to light during this, his second missionary journey. Yet, the adventure was only just beginning. He still had many miles to walk and many more to convert in the year years he had left. His time in Thessalonica was at just over the halfway point of his total ministry (NBST525 Instructor’s Notes). He had already suffered more hardship in the first years of his ministry than most people would endure in a lifetime and there was much more to come.