Introduction to the Bible - 52 - 1 Thessalonians

The First Epistle to the Thessalonians

by Louis Berkhof


 In the first Epistle to the Thessalonians we distinguish two parts:

 I. Pauls Apologia, 1:1--3:13. The letter opens with the usual apostolic  blessing and thanksgiving, 1: 1-4. This thanksgiving was called forth  by the fact that the apostles work in Thessalonica had not been in  vain, but had resulted in a faith that was spoken of throughout  Macedonia and Achaia, 5-10. The writer reminds the readers of his  labors among them, emphasizing his suffering, good moral behavior,  honesty, faithfulness, diligence and love, 2:1-12. He thanks God that  they had received him and his message and had suffered willingly for  the cause of Christ at the hands of the Jews, and informs them that he  had often intended to visit them, 13-20. His great love to them had  induced him to send Timothy to establish them and to strengthen them in  their affliction, 3:1-5; who had now returned and gladdened his heart  by a report of their steadfastness, 6-10. He prays that the Lord may  strengthen them, 11-13.

 II. Practical Exhortations and Instruction regarding the Parousia,  4:1--5 : 28. The apostle exhorts the Thessalonians that they follow  after sanctification, abstaining from fornication and fraud, and  exercising love, diligence and honesty, 4:1-12. He allays their fears  respecting the future of those that have died in Christ, 13-8, and  admonishes the Thessalonians in view of the sudden coming of Christ to  walk as children of the light that they may be prepared for the day of  Christs return, 5:1-11. After exhorting the brethren to honor their  spiritual leaders, and urging them to warn the unruly, to comfort the  feeble-minded, to support the weak, and to practice all Christian  virtues, the apostle closes his Epistle by invoking on the  Thessalonians the blessing of God, by expressing his desire that the  Epistle be read to all the brethren, and with the usual salutations,  12-28.


 1. This Epistle is like that to the Philippians one of the most  letterlike of all the writings of Paul. It is, as Deissmann says, "full  of moving personal reminiscences." The practical interest greatly  predominates over the doctrinal; and though the polemical element is  not altogether absent, it is not at all prominent. The letter is  primarily one of practical guidance, instruction and encouragement, for  a faithful, persecuted church, whose knowledge is still deficient, and  whose weak and faint-hearted and idlers greatly need the counsel of the  apostle.

 2. Doctrinally I Thessalonians is one of the eschatological Epistles of  Paul. It refers very little to Christ's coming in the flesh to give  himself a ransom for sin, but discusses all the more his future coming  as the Lord of Glory. There are at least six references to the parousia  in this short letter, two of which are rather extensive passages,  1:10;2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23. This doctrine is at once the  impelling motive for the exhortations of the apostle, and the  sufficient ground for the encouragement of his readers, who expected  the return of Christ in the near future.

 3. The Epistle never appeals to the Old Testament as an authority, and  contains no quotations from it. We find a reference to its history,  however, in 2:15, and probable reminiscences of its language in 2:16;  4: 5, 6, 8, 9; 5: 8. The language of 4:15-17 shows some similarity to  II Esdras 5:42, but the thought is quite different.

 4. The style of this letter is thoroughly Pauline, containing an  abundance of phrases and expressions that have parallels in the other  Epistles of Paul, especially in those to the Corinthians. Comparing it  with the other polemical writings of the apostle, we find that it is  written in a quiet unimpassioned style, a style, too, far more simple  and direct than that of Ephesians and Colossians. There are 42 words  peculiar to it, of which 22 are not found elsewhere in the New  Testament, and 20 are, but not in the writings of Paul.


 The external testimony in favor of the Pauline authorship is in no way  deficient. Marcion included the letter in his canon, and the Muratorian  Fragment mentions it as one of the Pauline writings. It is contained in  the old Latin and Syriac Versions; and from the time of Irenaeus,  Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian it is regularly quoted by name.

 The internal evidence also clearly points to Paul as the writer. The  Epistle comes to us under the name of Paul; and those that were  associated with him in writing it, viz. Silvanus (Silas) and Timotheus,  are known to have been Pauls companions on the second missionary  journey. It is marked by the usual Pauline blessing, thanksgiving and  salutation, and clearly reflects the character of the great apostle to  the Gentiles. Although it has been subject to attack, it is now  defended by critics of nearly every school as an authentic production  of Paul.

 Schrader and Baur were the first ones to attack it in 1835. The great  majority of critics, even those of Baur's own school, turned against  them; such men as Hilgenfeld, Pfleiderer, Holtzmann, Davidson, Von  Soden and Julicher defending the genuineness of the letter. They found  followers, however, especially in Holsten and Van der Vies.

 Of the objections brought against the Epistle the following deserve  consideration: (1) As compared with the other writings of Paul, the  contents of this Epistle are very insignificant, not a single doctrine,  except that in 4:13-18, being made prominent. In the main it is but a  reiteration of Pauls work among the Thessalonians, and of the  circumstances attending their conversion, all of which they knew very  well. (2) The letter reveals a progress in the Christian life that is  altogether improbable, if a period of only a few months had elapsed  between its composition and the founding of the church, cf. 1:7, 8;  4:10. (3) The passage 2:14-16 does not fit in the mouth of him who  wrote Rom. 9--11 and who was himself at one time a fierce persecutor of  the Church. Moreover it implies that the destruction of Jerusalem was  already a thing of the past. (4) The Epistle is clearly dependent on  some of the other Pauline writings, especially I and II Corinthians.  Compare 1: 5 with I Cor. 2: 4 ;-- 1:6 with I Cor. 11:1;--2:4 ff. with I  Cor. 2:4; 4:3ff.; 9:15 ff.; II Cor. 2:17; 5:11.

 The cogency of these arguments is not apparent. Paul's letters have an  occasional character, and the situation at Thessalonica did not call  for an exposition of Christian doctrine, save a deliverance on the  parousia; but did require words of encouragement, guidance and  exhortation, and also, in view of the insinuations against the apostle,  a careful review of all that he had done among them. Looked at from  that point of view the Epistle is in no sense insignificant. The words  of 1: 7, 8 and 4:10 do not imply a long existence of the Thessalonian  church, but simply prove the intensity of its faith and love. Three or  four months were quite sufficient for the report of their great faith  to spread in Macedonia and Achaia. Moreover the very shortcomings of  the Thessalonians imply that their religious experience was as yet of  but short duration. In view of what Paul writes in II Corinthians and  Galatians respecting the Judaeizers, we certainly need not be surprised  at what he says in 2:14-16. If the words are severe, let us remember  that they were called forth by a bitter and dogged opposition that  followed the apostle from place to place, and on which he had brooded  for some time. The last words of this passage do not necessarily imply  that Jerusalem had already been destroyed. They are perfectly  intelligible on the supposition that Paul, in view of the wickedness of  the Jews and of the calamities that were already overtaking them, Jos.  Ant. XX 2, 5, 6, had a lively presentiment of their impending doom. The  last argument is a very peculiar one. It is tantamount to saying that  the Epistle cannot be Pauline, because there are so many Pauline  phrases and expressions in it. Such an argument is its own refutation,  and is neutralized by the fact that in the case of other letters  dissimilarity leads the critics to the same conclusion.


 Thessalonica, originally called Thermae (Herodotus), and now bearing  the slightly altered name Saloniki, a city of Macedonia, has always  been very prominent in history and still ranks, after Constantinople,  as the second town in European Turkey. It is situated on what was  formerly known as the Thermaic gulf, and is built "in the form of an  amphitheater on the slopes at the head of the bay." The great Egnatian  highway passed through it from East to West. Hence it was of old an  important trade center and as such had special attraction for the Jews,  who were found there in great numbers. Cassander, who rebuilt the city  in 315 B. C. in all probability gave it the name Thessalonica in honor  of his wife. In the time of the Romans it was the capital of the second  part of Macedonia and the seat of the Roman governor of the entire  province.

 Paul, accompanied by Silas and Timothy, came to that city, after they  had left Philippi about the year 52. As was his custom, he repaired to  the synagogue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The result of this  work was a spiritual harvest consisting of some Jews, a great number of  proselytes (taking the word in its widest significance) and several of  the citys chief women. From the Acts of the Apostles we get the  impression (though it is not definitely stated) that Pauls labors at  Thessalonica terminated at the end of three weeks; but the Epistles  rather favor the idea that his stay there was of longer duration. They  pre-suppose a flourishing, well organized congregation, 5:12, whose  faith had become a matter of common comment, 1: 7-9; and show us that  Paul, while he was in Thessalonica, worked for his daily bread, 2: 9;  II Thess. 3 : 8, and received aid at least twice from the Philippians,  Phil. 4:16.

 His fruitful labor was cut short, however, by the malign influence of  envious Jews, who attacked the house of Jason, where they expected to  find the missionaries, and failing in this, they drew Jason and some of  the brethren before the rulers, politachas (a name found only in Acts  17:6, 8, but proved absolutely correct by inscriptions, cf. Ramsey, St.  Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen p. 227) and charged them with  treason. "The step taken by the politarchs was the mildest that was  prudent in the circumstances; they bound the accused over in security  that peace should be kept." (Ramsay) As a result the brethren deemed it  advisable to send Paul and his companions to Berea, where many accepted  the truth, but their labors were again interrupted by the Jews from  Thessalonica. Leaving Silas and Timothy here, the apostle went to  Athens, where he expected them to join him shortly. From the narrative  in the Acts it seems that they did not come to the apostle until after  his arrival at Corinth, but I Thess. 3: 1 implies that Timothy was with  him at Athens. The most natural theory is that both soon followed the  apostle to Athens, and that he sent Timothy from there to Thessalonica  to establish and comfort the church, and Silas on some other mission,  possibly to Philippi, both returning to him at Corinth.

 From the data in Acts 17:4 and I Thess. 1:9; 2:14 we may infer that the  church of Thessalonica was of a mixed character, consisting of Jewish  and Gentile Christians. Since no reference is made in the Epistles to  the tenets of the Jews and not a single Old Testament passage is  quoted, it is all but certain that its members were mostly Christians  of the Gentiles. Only three of them are known to us from Scripture,  viz. Jason, Acts 17:5-9, and Aristarchus and Secundus, Acts 20: 4. The  congregation was not wealthy, II Cor. 8: 2, 3; with the exception of a  few women of the better class, it seems to have consisted chiefly of  laboring people that had to work for their daily bread, 4:11; II Thess.  3: 6-12. They had not yet parted company with all their old vices, for  there was still found among them fornication 4: 3-5, fraud 4: 6 and  idleness 4:11. Yet they were zealous in the work of the Lord and formed  one of the most beloved churches of the apostle.


 1. Occasion and Purpose. What led Paul to write this letter, was  undoubtedly the report Timothy brought him respecting the condition of  the Thessalonian church. The apostle felt that he had been torn away  from them all too soon and had not had sufficient time to establish  them in the truth. Hence he was greatly concerned about their spiritual  welfare after his forced departure. The coming of Timothy brought him  some relief, for he learnt from that fellow-laborer that the church,  though persecuted, did not waver, and that their faith had become an  example to many. Yet he was not entirely at ease, since he also heard  that the Jews were insinuating that his moral conduct left a great deal  to be desired, while he had misled the Thessalonians for temporal gain  and vainglory, 2: 3-10; that some heathen vices were still prevalent in  the church; and that the doctrine of the parousia had been  misconstrued, giving some occasion to cease their daily labors, and  others, to feel concerned about the future condition of those who had  recently died in their midst. That information led to the composition  of our Epistle.

 In view of all these things it was but natural that the apostle should  have a threefold purpose in writing this letter. In the first place he  desired to express his gratitude for the faithful perseverance of the  Thessalonians. In the second place he sought to establish them in  faith, which was all the more necessary, since the enemy had sown tares  among the wheat. Hence he reminds them of his work among them, pointing  out that his conversation among them was above reproach, and that as a  true apostle he had labored among them without covetousness and  vainglory. And in the third place he aimed at correcting their  conception of the Lords return, emphasizing its importance as a motive  for sanctification,

 2. Time and Place. There is little uncertainty as to the time and place  of composition, except in the ranks of those who regard the Epistle as  a forgery. When Paul wrote this letter, the memory of his visit to  Thessalonica was still vivid, chs. 1 and 2; and he was evidently in  some central place, where he could keep posted on the state of affairs  in Macedonia and Achaia, 1: 7, 8, and from where he could easily  communicate with the Thessalonian church. Moreover Silas and Timothy  were with him, of which the former attended the apostle only on his  second missionary journey. and the latter could not bring him a report  of conditions at Thessalonica, until he returned to the apostle at  Corinth, Acts 18: 5. Therefore the Epistle was written during Paul's  stay in that city. However it should not be dated at the beginning of  Paul's Corinthian residence, since the faith of the Thessalonians had  already become manifest throughout Macedonia and Achaia, and some  deaths had occurred in the church of Thessalonica. Neither can we place  it toward the end of that period, for II Thessalonians was also written  before the apostle left Corinth. Most likely it was composed towards  the end of A. D. 52.


 The canonicity of this Epistle was never questioned in ancient times.  There are some supposed references to it in the apostolic fathers,  Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Ignatins and Polycarp, but they are very  uncertain. Marcion and the Muratorian Fragment and the old Latin and  Syriac Versions testify to its canonicity, however, and from the end of  the second century its canonical use is a well established fact.

 In this letter we behold Paul, the missionary, in the absence of any  direct controversy, carefully guarding the interest of one of his most  beloved churches, comforting and encouraging her like a father. He  strengthens the heart of his persecuted spiritual children with the  hope of Christ's return, when the persecutors shall be punished for  their evil work, and the persecuted saints, both the dead and the  living, shall receive their eternal reward in the Kingdom of their  heavenly Lord. And thus the apostle is an example worthy of imitation;  his lesson is a lesson of permanent value. The glorious parousia of  Christ is the cheering hope of the militant church in all her struggles  to the end of time.