Thessalonika was the Roman capital of Macedonia. It was one of the most important trading centers in Roman Greece. The church in Thessaloniki was founded by Paul (Acts 17:1-10) and consisted, mostly, of gentile converts. This letter was probably written in the early 50s from Corinth. Scholars believe this is the earliest letter of Paul and the earliest New Testament text we have.The letter follows the common pattern of Paul’s letters :
Letter body 2:1-3:13
2:1-16 Paul’s ministry
2:17- 3:13 Paul’s affection for the church
4:1-12 Holiness and Purity
4:13-5:11 The coming of the Lord
5:12-22 Concluding exhortation on community life
Final blessing and greetings 5:23-28
Paul is writing to encourage the church. As a community of Gentile converts, their beliefs made the Thessalonian Christians distinct from the society around them. In the Roman Empire there was essentially no separation of religion and political or social practices. The early Christians tried to avoid practices that they believed compromised their faith but this avoidance placed them at odds with societies expectations. There were pressures, occasionally including persecution, on members to return to their former way of life.
A few comments about particular verses:
1:6 Paul encourages the Thessalonians to imitate him. To our ears this sounds odd at best and arrogant as worst. In the ancient world, imitation was a normal way of moral education.
2:13-16 Some scholars think this section was a later addition by a disciple of Paul. No matter who wrote it, it is important to not misread and misuse this passage (and similar passages), as has tragically been done in the past. Remember the Paul was himself a Jew. When the phrase “the Jews” is used, Paul is not referring to all Jews but rather to the Jewish rulers and elite who were in a position to persecute the early church.
4:13-5:11 A major portion of the letter is written in answer to questions the Thessalonians had about the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Some were perplexed by the death of Christians before Christ’s return and wondered if those who had already died would be excluded from the resurrection. Paul’s answer uses apocalyptic images to assure the Thessalonians that all believers will be part of the resurrection.
The Greek word parousia had two meanings in Paul’s time. First it meant the “mysterious presence of a god or divinity”. The word was also used when an emperor or high ranking official visited their subjects.
“Paul and the early church are making two claims by using this word; first that Jesus the Messiah who is now present in spirit will be someday present in body as well and the whole world will know this powerful presence. They also want to say that Jesus is the true Lord of the world. Similarly to the way Caesar visits a colony “(the normally absent but ruling emperor appearing and ruling in person), so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world.”
Paul uses this Roman imagery in conjunction with Jewish apocalyptic language. (As we read Paul’s letters you will notice Paul mixes metaphors quite handily. See 1 Thess 5:2-9 for example) Paul’s readers are supposed to recall two Old Testament stories. When Israel encounters God at Mount Sinai there is a thick cloud, a trumpet blast and thunder. In Daniel 7, the “one like a human being” comes “with the clouds of heaven” and is given a “an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (7:14).
“[Paul puts] these two stories together, in a typically outrageous mix of metaphors…When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air”, the point is precisely not- as in the popular rapture theology- that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city but rather means that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.”
Quotes from: Chapter 8, “When He Appears” in Surprised by Hope:Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright, Harper One, 2008.
A prayer from Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) an early church father from Alexandria, for your use as you read 1 Thessalonians.
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.
Read More About It:
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament:An Interpretation, Rev. Ed. Fortress Press,1999. 281-287.
Perkins, Pheme “1 and 2 Thessalonians” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed. James L. Mays ed. The Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.
Metzger,Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy,The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books,NRSV Oxford University Press, 1994. “The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians” .