Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.
- Matthew 24:42-44
When I was a child my parents taught me to be prepared for the next day: school clothes ready, homework done, no going out on weeknights. I am grateful to them because their early lessons molded my work habits of today and helped me succeed in my career. When I became a disciple of Jesus I learned that this principle of preparedness was true in Christian living as well.
As Christians we must also prepare, but not just for tomorrow – we must prepare for that day when Jesus will return because when that day comes, there will be no tomorrow! Paul's epistles to the Thessalonians were written with the purpose of encouraging these Christians to be ready for the last day when Jesus would return, a day that could have happened in their lifetimes but didn't. This means that the last day could happen during our lifetimes, so we will study these letters in order to prepare should that day come to us.
Since this will be a formal study of this first epistle, I'd like to begin by giving you some introductory information about the place and circumstances in which this congregation was established.
Thessalonica - The City
The Thessalonica mentioned in Paul's letters is the modern day city of Salonika in South Eastern Europe. It is between Romania and Bulgaria to the north, Yugoslavia and Albania to the west. It is (as it was in the first century) a port city in central Macedonia, Greece on the edge of the Aegean Sea. Today it has a population of about 500,000 people.
The city was originally built in 315 BC by the Macedonian king, Cassander, and named after his wife who was Alexander the Great's half-sister. Because of its location, Thessalonica became a natural seaport and was a main route from Rome to the east. It was the largest trading center for the region of Macedonia with a population of 200,000 at that time. Thessalonica was within sight of Mount Olympus – a real mountain range that was believed to be the home of the gods in Greek mythology. Because of its location Thessalonica became a wealthy, cosmopolitan city where many cultures converged (Roman, Greek). Because it was a commercial center there was also a colony of Jews who lived and traded there and who had built a synagogue in order to practice their ancient religion in the midst of this worldly, pagan and wicked place. It was into this city in the year 51 AD that Paul found his way after receiving a vision or calling from the Lord.
Thessalonica - The Church
The church in Thessalonica was established there in approximately 51 AD while Paul was on his second missionary journey. The book of Acts recounts the events surrounding the founding of this congregation.
The Vision - Paul, Silas and Timothy were traveling on their second journey and in the process of strengthening churches established on the first journey when they had a "vision" or "calling."
They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night; a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
- Acts 16:6-10
Philippi - They crossed the Aegean Sea and made their way to Philippi, where through a series of events they established a church there.
So putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and on the day following to Neapolis; and from there to Phillipi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony; and we were staying in this city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening, and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.
- Acts 16:11-15
Later on we read that their presence and activities stir up a riot and they are jailed but miraculously released. After gaining their freedom they make their way a hundred miles south and come to the city of Thessalonica.
Thessalonica - Luke recounts the church being planted there and describes the further troubles encountered by the missionaries.
Now when they had traveled through Amphiplis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar, and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, "These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus. They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them. The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.
- Acts 17:1-10
So we see that Paul spent about a month here before being chased to the neighboring city of Berea some 50 miles west. This was not a lot of teaching time for a newly established church.
Corinth - Paul spent some time in Berea teaching before moving on to Athens in southern Greece, leaving Timothy and Silas in Berea. Paul made a few converts in Athens and his sermon on Mars Hill to the Athenian philosophers is recorded in Acts 17. He soon left Athens and headed for his final destination in Greece which was the city of Corinth. It is during his 18 months in Corinth that Paul wrote the two letters sent to the Thessalonians.
Occasion and Date of I Thessalonians
Once Timothy arrived in Corinth to be with Paul he began to report on the progress of the young churches that they had established in the region. When it came to Thessalonica, Timothy brought news that these young Christians were bearing well the persecution they were under because of their faith. He did mention, however, that several of their number had died and they were confused as to what would happen to those who died before the Lord returned. Paul had taught them that Jesus was to return but they hadn't considered the idea that some of them might die before this event actually took place. And so Paul, not very long after he had established this church, writes to them in order to calm their fears and provide further instructions concerning the second coming of the Lord.
This Thessalonian letter is the earliest full discussion related to the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the saints (written before Revelation). Scholars have no doubts concerning the authorship of this letter since Paul names himself, and historians note that it was widely distributed and accepted by the early church – two key factors in determining the authenticity and inspiration of New Testament documents. It is a model epistle when examining the various growing pains experienced by a new church. The Thessalonian congregation had been established and taught in the span of a few weeks. They were now facing persecution as well as confusion about doctrine. And so Paul writes to them in order to calm their fears and teach them what they wanted to understand but couldn't because of their lack of information and teaching.
Main Outline - I Thessalonians
This letter deals with three main themes that make up the body of the letter and these are book-ended by a salutation at the beginning and an exhortation and final greeting at the end. A basic outline would look like this:
- Paul's Prayer of Thanksgiving – 1:1-10
- Paul Defends His Conduct Among Them – 2:1-3:13
- Paul Exhorts the Thessalonians to Purer Conduct –4:1-12
- Paul Reveals Jesus' Teaching Concerning the End – 4:13-5:3
- Paul Instructs the Church in Preparing For the End – 5:4-28
General Purposes of the Letter
As we go through the first letter we will see some things that Paul is trying to accomplish with this brief epistle.
To Express His Feelings
In the opening section we will see Paul expressing his joy and gratitude for their fidelity and loyalty to Paul and his helpers. They were a young church and Paul hadn't been with them long, however they were faithful in many ways despite the attacks leveled against them and their faith. A great reward for ministers is seeing the faithfulness and growth of the members. Nothing kills the zeal of the preacher or missionary more than unfaithful Christians. This is why many leave to go to other places seeking new fields to harvest and more fruitful members.
Paul Defends Himself
After his departure there were some who accused Paul of being insincere, of being a fraud. He spends time in this letter defending his conduct. The best way to cause division is to attack the leaders and teachers in the church. This tactic was being used by certain people in the Thessalonian church against the Apostle.
Paul Encourages Them
Their new faith was being tested and many were being tempted to return to their pagan lifestyles with its sexual impurity. Not many begin the Christian life and even fewer finish because they don't expect to be tested, and when they are – they quit. Paul encourages them to remain faithful to Christ despite the trials and temptations.
Paul Gives Them Further Teaching
He provides teaching in two critical areas:
- The details concerning the second coming of Christ. This idea is mentioned 20 times in the two letters.
- Sanctified living. The second coming was the reason for the purified living of Christians. Paul explained this in more detail.
Paul encourages them and sends greetings to maintain love and fellowship between his group and these young Christians.
This is some of the background information needed to help you understand the material we will look at as we begin this series. In the meantime, some closing remarks concerning the relevance of this study for us today.
We study this epistle because, in many ways, it is a portrait of ourselves. We are a small group surrounded by a large, secular and immoral society. It is always a temptation to return to a worldly lifestyle.
We study this to gain a better understanding about the end of the world and the various teachings about these matters. We should know what the Bible teaches about the Man of Lawlessness, the rapture, tribulation and what happens at the end of time. We need to get a handle on these things and try to separate fact from fantasy.
Finally, we study to better prepare ourselves for the return of the Lord. He may come sooner than later, but we need to be ready in any case. These two letters to the Thessalonians will help us in this effort.