I am really excited to begin this semester’s study of 1 Thessalonians. This is the earliest written New Testament book, the first epistle written. The Gospel was being preached immediately after the resurrection, but this is our first written book in the New Testament. (Mark and Matthew write their Gospel accounts a few years later, Luke several more years later, John almost 35 years after 1 Thessalonians. There is a minority view that Galatians may have been written prior, but I trust the scholars who say that is not likely).
Not only is this book one that the Spirit uses to greatly enrich our faith and understanding, it also aids us as we learn to “give an answer for the hope that is in us, with gentleness and reverence.”
Where, to whom, when…
Written from Corinth, in the year 50, less than 20 years after the resurrection! The Church was still in her teens! Paul had already been a missionary and church planter for 15 years–he is not giving ‘green’ advice or theology that will change later. The Truth in this epistle is unchanging, never to be considered by us ‘outdated.’
He is addressing both things they have sought counsel on, and personal concerns he has for their faith. This semester, with each week, it will be good to remind ourselves: this truth was written in the very first Christian Epistle! Historically and Apologetically, this letter will inform our faith in vigorous ways.
“1 Thessalonians is Jewish Christianity adapted for non-Jewish readers. Its messianic and apocalyptic categories of thought are thoroughly Jewish.” 1
It was written to the whole church, to be read by all. We will see from the tone of the letter that Paul knew they grasped what he had preached, that they were true believers with an active faith, a faith accompanied by works.
To understand their situation, we start in Acts, with the Macadonian vision. If you can look on an atlas, check out the location of Macadonia, a Roman Province split into four sections. Paul called to this region by the Holy Spirit, travelled the well maintained trade route, Via Egnatia. Paul and his cohort were expelled from one Macadeonian city after another as a troublemaker; believers routinely persecuted–yet with joy, and without giving up–steadfastness of Christ! So while Paul had to leave Thessolonica, we know he repeatedly tried to return yet was thwarted (1 Thess 2:18)–he was burdened for them, wanting them to know enough to cling to, and to know how to walk.
Some of the Big Ideas:
Faith, hope, love, call, sanctification, walk, wait/patience, and “Grace and peace.”
We shall look at this as a model for Christian correspondence. We shall also see, though not the main focus of the book: role of women (from Acts) or rather the further realization of women as important; eschatology, establishing a pattern for Christian letters (as genre, not just the ones that are inspired by Holy Spirit), robust early Christology. Jesus is the Son whose death and resurrection rescue us from eschatological wrath.
The Thessalonian church had specific doubts that we may not face in the same way: Oh no, someone died before Christ returned…now what?! Much of this letter is a response to questions they have concerning the faith. This letter contains many timeless answers, even if we are not experiencing the same angst.
A bit of background:
One commentator notes: “militant Judaism throughout the Roman Empire, they were the cause of many riots, hence Emperor Claudius the Jews from Rome for excessive riotting. This may be what led Paul and his companions to leave cities as riots were threatened–leaving quietly before putting lives in danger.” 2
“In addition, the converts at Beroea, as at Thessalonica, included several “Greekwomen of high standing” (Acts 17:12). “Throughout Paul’s Macadeonian mission, then, women of substance appear to have played an influential part among his converts, beginning with Lydia (Acts 16:14). This is in keeping with the traditional status of women in Macadonian society.” 3
“If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions from them for their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers. This example, set by women of the rulings classes, was evidently followed by their freeborn sisters in lower social ranks.”Bruce, xxv.
So while Paul definitely taught male headship and authority within the Church–the Holy Spirit did not send him to Macadonia to teach women that they had no place in society. As Jesus’ ministry was funded by women, so was much of Paul’s Macadonian mission. And Paul was ok with that. As we apply Scriptural teachings about “womenhood” we need to keep in mind that Paul did not uproot Macadonian society making women be silent in culture, or silent in society. He did not allow them to be pastors and elders, as seen in the rest of New Testament literature. Yet women are disciples, and can serve the church in many ways, but not these leading roles.
See 2 Cor 8:1-5; 11:9; Romans 15:26 to see the Macadonian generosity, though not rich. Paul never asked the Thessalonicans for money while there. He worked. And as was the missionary custom, another church would help fund the mission while the Gospel was introduced, and in this case it was the church at Philippi that sent money while Paul was in Thessalonica. As the gospel worked in their hearts, in turn, the Thessalonians aided other churches.
Turn to Acts 15-20!
Here we see that Paul and his traveling group were making their wait through many cities that the Spirit prevented them from preaching in. Finally a vision comes to Paul, direction to go to Macadonia. He begins in Philippi, continues on to Thessalonica, then Berea, and later leaves Macadonia to go down into Greece, to Athens. He returns to Thessalonica later on.
Paul spends three Sabbath’s in the synagogue reasoning amongst the Jews; some believe but many do not. We do not know how much time Paul then spent among the Gentiles, but “a large number of God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women” believed! The Jews wanted to end this ministry, and stirred up a riot. Naturally it is among the Gentles that they search for Paul. “The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea.”
In Berea, another riot breaks out by the traveling group of Jews from Thessalonica! So Paul left, leaving TImothy and Silas behind. The letter to the Thessalonians is written not too much later, while Paul is in Corinth (Acts 18). Timothy brings concerns to Paul (see 1 Thessalonians 3 and Acts 18:5), and this letter is written to address them.
Next week we begin with chapter 1, verses 1-5.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash