Historical Background for Epistle to Thessalonians
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Historical Context: 1 Thessalonians
by David Chong Wui Howe
Who Wrote the Letter?
Paul, Silas and Timothy were identified in the opening salutation as co-authors (1:1). Later, Paul was again identified in 2:18. The frequent use of “we” (48 occurrences) and “our” (27 occurrences) throughout the letter confirmed the involvement of more than one writer. Even so, Paul’s role was more apparent. From Luke’s account in Acts, the trio were ministry partners during Paul’s second missionary journey. Silas was commissioned to Antioch after the Jerusalem Council and joined Paul’s missionary team when a sharp disagreement caused Barnabas to part ways (Acts 15: 22, 40). In Lystra, they recruited young Timothy whose father was Greek and mother was Jewish (Acts 16:1). In the letter, Timothy was spoken highly as “our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ” (3:2).
Paul also made mention of their successful ministry (1:4) and exemplary lifestyle amongst the Thessalonians after his team had “suffered and been insulted in Philippi” (2:2). According to Acts, they met with strong opposition after casting out demons from a fortune-teller. Paul and Silas were subsequently beaten, imprisoned and requested to leave the city (Acts 16: 11 – 40). The tone was very affectionate throughout the letter (2:8, 2:17-20, 3:6, 9-10), suggesting that the authors and audience knew each other well. Paul could confidently say that the church knew how he had lived among them (1:5).
He was also unambiguous about his calling as an apostle (2:6b) in that the instructions he gave carry “the authority of the Lord Jesus” (4:2). The message he preached to them was “the word of God”, not the word of man (2:13). Those who rejected his instructions were in effect rejecting God, not man (4:8). Even though Paul and his associates deserved financial support, he desired to share with the church not only the gospel, but their lives as well (2:9). In order not to burden the church, Paul sacrificially earned his own income while preaching the gospel so as to model a righteous and holy life (2:10).
To whom was the Letter Written?
The letter was explicitly addressed to “the church of the Thessalonians”, (1:1) located in that capital city of Roman Macedonia. The church was established during Paul’s second missionary journey after their departure from Philippi. For three Sabbaths, Paul preached in the synagogue with impressive success (Acts 17:2). However, his appeal to the Thessalonians’ witness (2:10) to how he “worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone” (2:9) probably suggested that he spent a longer time there. It was possible that he subsequently preached outside the synagogue. The Thessalonians received his gospel message “not as the word of man, but as it really is, the word of God” (2:13). A large number of Greek proselytes and not a few prominent women also believed the gospel (Acts 17:4). The racial composition of the church most probably included both Jews (Acts 17:4) and Gentiles (2:14).
However the young church encountered intense opposition from the Jews such that Paul had to flee for safety. Instead, they seized and arrested Jason, who hosted Paul and other Christians as well (Acts 17:6-9). The information we gather from this epistle fits Luke’s narrative in Acts well. Paul could describe his departure as being “torn away from you for a short time” (2:17). The imagery he employed conveyed the idea that he was involuntarily and perhaps, abruptly separated from them with force. Also, the church in Thessalonica was clearly a persecuted congregation at the hands of their own countrymen (1:6, 2:14, 3:3-4). Despite intense opposition, the church became a well-known model to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia (1:7-8). They were instrumental in spreading the good news (1:8) in the surrounding region. Paul lavishly commended their “work produced by faith”, “labour prompted by love” and “endurance inspired by hope in the Lord Jesus” (1:3).
From where was the Letter Written?
In Acts 17:13 - 16, we were told that Paul escaped from Berea with the help of some believers and gave instruction to Silas and Timothy to meet him at Athens. Later, Paul went to Corinth where Silas and Timothy met him there “from Macedonia.” (Acts 18:5) A possible historical reconstruction was that they met earlier at Athens before Timothy was sent back to investigate the condition of the church in Thessalonica (3:1) and then rejoined Paul at Corinth (3:6). In this scenario, the epistle would have been written from Corinth, a political and commercial hub among Greek cities. Another possible hint was found in the reference to “Achaia” in 1:7-8.
When was the Letter Written?
With the possible exception of Galatians, this epistle could well be the earliest extant letter Paul had written. It was argued from an inscription that the proconsul Gallio arrived at Corinth in early summer of AD 51 . Since Paul’s preaching activities had started some time before his trial before the proconsul, he most likely had arrived earlier in AD 50.
We may infer from Paul’s statement in 2:17 that the epistle was written shortly after his departure from Thessalonica. It could have been written in the early stages of Paul’s mission work in Corinth as he did not end his letter with greetings from other brothers and sisters. However, the evidence is not conclusive.
Why was the Letter Written?
The likely Sitz im Leben (setting in life) was that Paul’s hasty departure may have been the occasion seized by his opponents to cast doubt on his character and nullify his work (3:5). Therefore he was anxious to send Timothy (3:2) and discover how the church was getting on. Upon rejoining Paul, he brought good news (3:6) that the Thessalonians were standing firm in their faith, endurance and good works (1:7, 3:8). After the discouraging campaign in Athens and disruption in Berea, (Acts 17:34) the report was joyous reminder to the embattled apostle that his labours were not in vain. (3:9)
Therefore the epistle was a follow-up on Timothy’s favourable report but it was most likely intended for a wider audience also (5:27). The solemn charge was to have it read to “all the brothers”, which possibly included other churches throughout Macedonia (4:10). They were instructed to maintain sexual purity (4:3 -8) in keeping with their knowledge of God. The epistle was also written to encourage them in the face of possible martyrdom with the hope of Jesus’ Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead (2:14, 4:13, 18, 5:23). They were called to work hard so as not to be a burden to anybody and win the respect of outsiders (4:11-12). Both themes would recur prominently in 2 Thessalonians 1:4 – 6 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6 – 13. Since the specific date and time of the Lord’s return were unknown, they should be ready, alert and self-controlled at all times (5:6-8).
Throughout his admonishments, Paul nonetheless use warm imagery of a mother (2:7) and father (2:11) caring for little, obedient children. For example, he noted that in fact, they were already living in a manner pleasing to God (4:1), had been taught by God about brotherly love (4:10) and edifying each other (5:11). Compared to such difficult and fire-fighting letters like Corinthians and Galatians, the first epistle to Thessalonians would have been such a delightful encouragement for Paul to write.