Introduction to 1st and 2nd Thessalonians

Dear Friends,

Greetings in Christ! I pray this post finds you all of God’s grace, mercy, and peace.

This week we begin a new study in the epistles of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. Both these letters were written by the apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul evangelized Jews as well (Acts 9:15; 13:43; et al), but his message was widely received by the Gentiles in particular. (Acts 18:6; 22:21; Gal 2:8)
1st Thessalonians was the first letter written by the apostle Paul, circa AD 52 or 53. 2nd Thessalonians was also written circa AD 52 or 53, only a few months after the first letter.

Paul spent the first part of his life as a Pharisee. At that time, his name was Saul. One of the requirements to be a Pharisee was to memorize the entire Tanakh, or Old Testament. Another requirement was marriage. Paul was married although he did not mention his wife in any of his letters. She may have died but she most likely left him when he dedicated his life to Christ. It has been said that the Pharisees weren’t fair you see; For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (It’s been said that the Sadducees were sad you see, because they did not believe in an afterlife.) Born in Tarsus, an affluent Roman city, Saul later moved to Jerusalem and studied the feet of Gamaliel, the most renowned scholar of that day. According to the Talmud, Gamaliel was the president of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He was the first to be called Rabban, a title higher than Rabbi. To the Jews of that day, Paul’s education under Gamaliel would have made him a scholar equivalent to an MIT graduate in 21st Century America. Events had been in motion for centuries preparing the world for this moment. The Greeks homogenized the language and the Romans built the roads. Paul was fully equipped and thoroughly furnished to take the gospel to the Roman world. 

When the early church was first getting started, the leaders were ignorant and unlearned men. (Acts 4:13) When Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee who persecuted Christians unto the death (Acts 22:4) began to preach the gospel, he caused a stir that turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6), or right side up, depending on your perspective. As a student of Gamaliel, Paul could have had a lucrative and prestigious career. He could have led a life of ease and comfort. Paul wrote But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, (Phil 3:7-8). Paul suffered more than anyone else in the New Testament except for Jesus:

23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.
24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.
29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?
30 If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.
2 Corinthians 11:23-30

It was during Paul’s second missionary journey that he founded the church in Thessalonica. Paul was a freeborn Roman citizen, which gave him greater access and made things more manageable as he traveled around the empire doing his missionary work. In Acts 16, Paul was traveling with Silas and Timothy as they made their way through Galatia (located in the middle of what we know as Turkey). As they were leaving Galatia, the Holy Spirit was directing them to go west. When Paul wanted to go north, the Spirit said no. When he wanted to go south, the Spirit said no. It was around this time that Dr Luke joined Paul and the others. The first we in the Book of Acts, which Dr Luke authored, appears just before they left for the Roman province of Macedonia. Macedonia was the area NW of the Aegean Sea; Philippi, Thessolanica, and Berea were each located there. The country just north of Greece is still called North Macedonia. At Troas, Paul had a vision of a man asking him for help in Macedonia. There is no mention of who the man was. (Jesus?) Immediately Paul and his friends left and traveled through Samothracia and Neapolis before arriving in Philippi. After starting a church in Philippi and doing some time in the Philippian jail, Paul moved on to Thessalonica along with Timothy and Silas. Dr Luke stayed behind in Philippi to minister to the church. Acts 17:1 says when they passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:
Dr Luke would join Paul again, later, on Paul’s third missionary journey. When he visited Philippi, Dr Luke was still there. Acts 20:6 says we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavend bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days.

Thessalonica was a great Roman city. In Paul’s day, it had a population of 200,000 people. It was the chief city of Macedonia. Cassander of Macedon renamed the city from Therma to Thessalonica after his wife, Thessalonike. Thessalonike was the half-sister of Alexander the Great. Her name is made of two Greek words, Thessaly and nike, and means ‘Thessalian victory’. Today the city is called Thessaloniki. You may remember Cassander from our study in Daniel. He was was one of the four successors to Alexander the Great who divided his kingdom amongst themselves. (Dan 8:8) As Paul’s manner was, he went to the local synagogue and used his credentials as a scholar to speak and present the gospel. A great many believed, but some of the Jews that believed not were overcome by the green-eyed monster of jealousy when they saw the people start to follow Paul. Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy? Basically, Paul was run out of town. From there they went to Berea, but the Jews that believed not followed them there and stirred up trouble again. So Paul left for Athens, but he left Timothy and Silas behind to look after the new believers. Berea and Thessalonica were only about 20 miles apart, so they could have looked after both churches. From Acts 17:10, it looks like Timothy stayed in Thessalonica and Silas stayed in Berea. After Paul was settled in Athens, he sent for Timothy and Silas. Timothy brought news with him of how the church in Thessalonica was prospering. Paul wrote them the letter of 1st Thessalonians to answer questions they had. He sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to deliver it, as well as to help establish them in the faith. (1 Thess 3:2)

I hope you will join me on this journey through these epistles. We have much to learn from Paul and his letters to the Thessalonians. The central themes of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians are the rapture of the church and the Second Coming of Christ, respectively. We need to be informed about these doctrines as we see the day approaching.

Father, I pray that You will guide us through our study in the epistles of Paul the apostle to the Thessalonians. I pray You to anoint each of us with the Holy Spirit that we may rightly divide the word of truth. I pray that You will soften our hearts that we may prepare ourselves against the day of your Son’s coming. I pray, Lord, that through the careful study of your word, we may be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.