The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians - Introduction
Thessalonica, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia in northern Greece, was strategically located on both sea and land routes. First Thessalonians, addressed to the congregation there, is Paul's earliest letter. After being mistreated at Philippi ( 2.2; Acts 16.19–40 ), Paul went to Thessalonica where he established this congregation. After a painful separation ( 2.17 ) and the failure of repeated efforts to return ( 2.18 ), Paul dispatched Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens ( 3.1 ) while he later moved on to Corinth (Acts 18.1–17 ). From there, perhaps around 50 CE, he wrote this letter.
Beginning with a simple letter opening ( 1.1 ) and ending with a typical Pauline closing ( 5.23–28 ), the letter offers repeated encouragement toward steadfastness. A thanksgiving acknowledges the congregation's growth, the gospel's power, and Paul's persistence in prayer ( 1.2–5 ). Next, Paul recalls the community's consistency in the reception, proclamation, and early work of the gospel despite ongoing opposition ( 1.6–2.16 ). Although 2.14–16 seems anti‐Jewish and thus not characteristic of Paul, there is no evidence for a later addition here. Readers should remember that the polemics are directed to Jewish persecutors of the Judean churches, not all Jews. Such polemics, moreover, resonate with other debates among Jews of Paul's day (see, for instance, Josephus Antiquities, 1.15.91; Philo Cherubim, 17). Then, when he recounts the deep anguish of the separation ( 2.17–3.13 ), Paul notes Timothy's mediation of comfort and his own prayer for a reunion with the congregation. A description of the sanctified life follows along with exhortations to remain vigilant until “the coming of the Lord” ( 4.15 ) despite the deaths of loved ones and the temptations of false forms of security ( 4.1–5.22 ).
First Thessalonians is a friendly, exhortative letter of encouragement. Paul extends affectionate praise for the audience's steadfast hope ( 1.3 ) and mutual love ( 4.9 ). A stirring recounting of his separation from the community ( 2.17–3.7 ) reveals the community's affection for him. Allusions to family life such as “father” ( 1.1,3; 2.11; 3.11,13 ), “sons” ( 1.10; 5.5 ), “brothers” (17 instances), and “nurse” ( 2.7 ) also convey a friendly tone.
The numerous imperatives in chs 4 and 5 convey an exhortative tone as well. This tone also pervades the earlier chapters, for (as with other ancient letters of exhortation) the letter highlights the imitation of models ( 1.6; 2.14 ) and the remembrance of a teacher's previous words or deeds ( 2.1–12; 3.4 ). With the friendly and exhortative tones, moreover, the letter encourages a community that is facing social pressures and perhaps outright persecution to maintain its apocalyptic vigilance.