During Paul’s 2nd Missionary Journey (Acts 15:36-18:22), Paul, Silas, and Timothy go with the blessing of the Jerusalem Council to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. They leave Jerusalem and travel toward Roman Macedonia. This is the modern area of Northern Greece, Southern Macedonia, and Albania. They travel to Philippi and after a few conversions and a public uproar, Paul and Silas leave for Thessalonica.
Thessalonica was a sizable city of around 200,000 people. It was a senatorial province directly under the control of the Roman Senate. Paul and Silas enter the city around 50AD. This was during the reign of Claudius, who would have enforced the imperial cult in all his provinces. Failure to worship Caesar was tantamount to treason and would result in dire consequences.
Paul enters the city and heads to the synagogue, as was his custom. He preached there for three Sabbaths. He reasoned with the people and sought to prove to them that Jesus had to suffer and die and rise from the dead, according to the Scriptures (Acts 17:3). Some believed. And some Greeks believed. And “not a few of the leading women.” This growing church began to cause concern for some in the city. A mob was formed. A riot broke out. They attacked the house of Jason, where Paul and Silas were presumably staying. Not finding Paul and Silas, they dragged Jason out and accused them of “turning the world upside down.” The effect of the gospel on that city was so profound that the believers were accused with completely overturning all the conventions. Would that the modern church could be accused of the same.
Paul and Silas were sent away to Berea. Their stay in Thessalonica was at least three weeks long (“three Sabbaths”) but could have been up to a few months long. Whatever the case, Thessalonians who were still upset with Paul and Silas actually followed them to Berea and attempted to form another riot there. Paul left Berea alone and travels to Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and then on to Corinth (Acts 18). In Athens Paul sends Timothy back to Thessalonica to encourage the church there. Later on in Corinth, Timothy returns and gives a report to Paul. Then in Corinth Paul sits down to compose a letter to the church he had formed and then left in Thessalonica.
With this timing, 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest New Testament writings. Most scholars place it as the first or second Pauline letter (depending on one’s dating of Galatians). Likely, this letter was composed around 50AD. Only the most cynical of biblical scholars doubt that Paul is the author of this letter.
First Thessalonians follows the conventional pattern of letters for Paul. There is a) an opening, b) thanksgiving, c) body of doctrine or exhortation, and d) closing. The opening of 1 Thessalonians is simple and straight-forward (1:1). In the thanksgiving Paul thanks God for the good works of the Thessalonians; their “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfastness of hope” (1:3). This theme of “Faith, hope, & love” will appear in 5:8 and also in 1 Corinthians 13 (remember Paul is writing this letter from Corinth).
Paul then enters into the body of his letter. The first part is an apostolic defense (2:1-12). As was normal, after Paul left a city, others quickly entered in and tried to derail or take over the church. These interlopers attempted to discredit Paul, painting him as no different than a traveling philosopher who sought to fleece the people. Paul rejects this accusation and defends his credentials. Paul then explains Timothy’s mission to them (2:17-3:13). Paul rejoices over the good report Timothy brought about the church. Then Paul gives a number of instructions to the church (4:1-5:22). Abstain from sexual immorality. Love. Honor those in authority over you. Don’t repay evil for evil. Pray. Give thanks. These are important remarks. But 1 Thessalonians is most often studied because of some remarks Paul makes about eschatology (the “end times”). Paul reminds the believers of the Return of Christ. When believers die, we grieve but not as those without hope (4:13-18). Continue laboring and be awake for the day of the Lord (5:1-11). The Lord will bodily return one day, and all believers will have resurrected bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. We don’t know when that will be, but we are encouraged to be prepared now for it.
Paul’s final words are his closing (5:23-28). He offers a benediction, prayer, and encouragement that his letter be read publicly. Paul wrote to encourage new believers in Thessalonica about living out the faith, the hope of the return of Christ, and the love of God in Christ. Through this letter we see something of the glory of Christ and the hope we can have in the gospel.