The New Testament writings began around the year 50 CE (common era) when a travelling missionary, anxious about a group of converts that he had called to follow Christ, could not get back to see how they were faring. Instead he wrote them a letter. The missionary was Paul; the letter was 1 Thessalonians.
It begins ‘Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians…’ The last words of the latest book in the New Testament, 2 Peter, from as late as the early second century, comment on ‘our beloved brother Paul…there may be some things hard to understand’ (2 Pet 3:15ff). So the chronology of the NT is a journey from Paul to Paul.
Real people facing real problems
Paul will always be a problem if we fail to realise that he was not writing abstract theology but addressing real life issues for real life people.
The first letter to the Thessalonians is advice for converts, beautifully described as those who ‘turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and await the return of his son from heaven’ (1 Thes 1:9f). Thessalonica, a seaport, was founded by Cassanda in 314 BCE (before the common era) and named after his wife who was the half-sister of his general, Alexander the Great.
The city contained a mixed group of Greeks, Jews and foreigners, each culture with its own style of religion. The new Christian ‘way’ was attractive to many.
The three phases of conversion—to turn, to serve, to wait—are a good guide to the letter itself. One must turn—or change one’s orientation towards many gods (then and now).
The community is described as being ‘in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’, so Paul greets them as created in a new community as believers and presents himself as one who was ‘like a father with his children’ but also among them as ‘gentle, like a nurse taking care of her children’ (2:7), a beautiful image of the role that preachers play in relation to the divine grace they receive and share.
Christ has died! Christ is risen!
In praying for the community Paul expresses a hope that they will transform into a worshipping community. A group of immature Christians, through the power of God the Father, will transform their ‘work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:3).
God (Father, Son and Spirit) is the source of the three qualities that define Christian identity, faith, hope and love. Notice how they look to the past (in faith), the present (to live love) and the future (with hope). With these three in place, one can now serve God.
The service of God involves suffering (2:24-3:8). Paul was seriously concerned about whether the newly founded community had stood up to its various afflictions.
But Timothy, whom he had sent at no small cost to himself, had returned with good news and Paul returns to the theme of thanksgiving, a dominant feature of more than half the letter.
Faithful service is accompanied by a growth in holiness (3:9-4:8). He writes to supply ‘what is lacking in your faith’, a lead-in to his concern to correct their faulty understanding of the return of Jesus in glory.
Meanwhile people are expected to live responsibly (4:1-8) in mutual love (4:9-12) and in the certainty of Christ’s coming (4:13-18). It is this last point of ‘awaiting with steadfast hope’ Jesus’ glorious return that has provided the best known part of the letter.
That unknown future!
At this time Paul was still preaching the more immediate return of Jesus during his own lifetime (4:17). As the years passed the church realised this was not to be soon.
Paul’s main concern is that idle speculation about the future must not impinge on the present. His emphasis is on what kind of people we are to be now in view of that coming end. The effects of expecting an imminent return of Jesus had led to people stopping work and behaving in the wrong way (4:1-8).
Two closely related issues conclude the letter. Those who have died will also participate in the Lord’s second coming, (4:15-17, cf Matt 24:29-35). The exact moment of the Lord’s coming is unknown to us (5:1-11).
The rest of the letter is a programme for Christian living to prepare for that coming. Paul never omits the final blessing (5:28).
A debated text (2:13-16)
The harshness of this text towards the Jews is something not found elsewhere in Paul and may well be an addition from the bitter period after 70 CE when Christians were being excommunicated from the synagogues and hostility was growing.
At the very least we are dealing with the insertion of a second letter into the first, a not uncommon phenomenon with the Pauline letters. Careful reading would indicate that 2:17 follows naturally from 2:12.