A verse-by-verse exegetical commentary on the New Testament Greek textIntroduction
Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is likely to be the earliest of his recorded letters to his missionary churches. It is a letter that doesn't expound any substantial issues of doctrine, nor does it detail any of the major problems facing the early church. It simply deals with local issues facing the Thessalonian church, namely Jewish opposition to the gospel and some confusion on the part of church members concerning the second coming of Christ. William Neil says of the Thessalonian letters that they "afford us a most valuable glimpse of a small Christian community finding its feet and facing its problems in a hostile or indifferent world. ... Above all they remind us that ..... the element of hope in a purpose of God that reaches beyond the frontiers of our normal experience has been embedded firmly in the heart of the Christian gospel form the beginning."
The structure of 1 Thessalonians
1. Introduction, 1:1-10
i] Greeting and thanksgiving, 1:1-3
ii] The conversion of the Thessalonians and their progress in the faith, 1:4-10
2. Paul's relationship with the Thessalonian church, 2:1 -3:13
i] Paul defends his gospel ministry, 2:1-12
ii] Thanksgiving for the Thessalonians' response to the gospel, 2:13-16
iii] Paul's desire to revisit the Thessalonians, 2:17-20
iv] Timothy's mission to Thessalonica, 3:1-5
v] Timothy's report and Paul's prayer, 3:6-13
3. Exhortations toward Christian living, 4:1-5:22
i] Sexual purity, 4:1-8
ii] Brotherly love and respect, 4:9-12
iii] Instructions concerning the dead in Christ, 4:13-18
iv] Being prepared for the return of Christ, 5:1-11
v] Respect within the Christian community, 5:12-22
4. Conclusion, 5:23-28
Prayer, final injunction and blessing
The structure above reflects the increasing trend to approach Paul's letters, not so much as letters, but as correspondence crafted in line with first century rhetoric. This literary form serves to argue a case and persuade the reader to adopt it:
i] Exordium - introduction. Serving to introduce the subject matter while eliciting the sympathy of the audience, 1:1-10.
ii] Narratio - a narrative section, not always present in deliberative rhetoric, 2:1-3:10.
iii] Partitio - a summary of the proofs / theses. Not present in 1 Thessalonians, but evident in 2 Thessalonians, 2:1-2.
iv] Digressio - a digression where subject matter is covered in more detail. In this letter the digression deals with persecution, 2:13-16.
v] Transitus - a transitional element, 3:11-13.
vi] Probatio - rhetorical proofs / theses, 4:1-5:22.
vii] Peroratio - a recapitulation of the main themes, 5:23-28.
viii] Exhortatio - exhortation. Not found as a united element in 1 Thessalonians, but found in 2 Thessalonians, 3:1-15.
See Hughes, Early Christian Rhetoric, and/or Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism, 1984. Wanamaker adopts a rhetorical structure in his commentary.
The Date of writing
Paul writes soon after Timothy and Silas join him in Corinth, cf. 1Thess.3:1f, Ac.18:5. Acts 18:12 refers to the proconsul Gallio who via an inscription at Delphi, refers a question to Emperor Claudius on his 12th year as a tribune, and thus sets a date of around 52AD.
The origins of the Thessalonian church
Following his dream of the man of Macedonia Paul, with Silas, Timothy and Luke, left Asia Minor and moved westward into Europe (Macedonia). Paul preached in Philippi and after a riot he headed for Thessalonica, Ac.17:1. The city was a major centre in the empire, on the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway to the East, and possessed a beautiful harbour. It was therefore a key trading centre for Macedonia and was later to become the capital of the whole province. Luckily, in the second civil war, the city sided with Anthony and Octavian and so, following their victory, was given the status of a free city.
When Paul arrived he initially attended the local Synagogue preaching there for "three sabbath days". In the meantime he gained employment to see him through his stay, a period of around a month. The success of the mission prompted the Jews to seek out Paul and deal with him. A riot resulted and the home of Jason, where Paul was staying, was set upon. Only Jason was found, and he was dragged before the local authorities (the politarchs). They sought to accuse Paul and the Christians of treason, but as there was no proof of their guilt, Jason and his friends were freed, but ordered to keep the peace. Paul and Silas were sent quickly away to Beroea.
Purpose of the letter
After further troubles Paul was forced to leave Beroea. Leaving Silas and Timothy behind, he went to Athens where his ministry made little impact. He then went to Corinth, by which time he was somewhat dejected. After visiting the new churches in Macedonia, Silas and Timothy came to Paul in Corinth. They brought word of the new church in Thessalonica, pointing out its weaknesses, but reported that the new believers were standing firm. Paul was overjoyed and wrote to the believers affirming their progress in the faith while seeking to correct some of the problems that had emerged.
Part of the difficulty Paul faced was the slander directed toward him by the strong Jewish community in the town. They sought to align Paul with the many wandering preachers who prayed off the gullible for a living. Thus Paul writes to refute these slanders. The believers in Thessalonica were also under pressure from elements of the secular society. He therefore writes to encourage his friends to stand firm in their trials.
On the theological front there was some confusion concerning the second coming of Christ. The members of the Thessalonian church thought that the second coming was imminent, yet some of their number had died. Did this mean that those who had died will miss out on the coming day of glory? Some believers had given up their job to wait for the coming day and were now busybodies and idlers. There was also some speculation over the date of Christ's return, a further issue that Paul had to deal with.
The enthusiasm of some of the church leaders was wearing thin and so Paul touched on the issue of respect for those over us in the Lord. He also was aware of sexual immorality in the church, and so addressed this issue as well.
Bibliography: Commentaries - 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Bailey, Abingdon. Best, Black's. Bruce, Word. Ellicott, 1861, reprint Zondervan. Fee, NICNT, 2009. Findlay, CGTSC, 1911. Baker reprint, 1982. Frame, ICC, 1912. Furnish, Abingdon. Graystone, CBC. Green, Pillar. Hiebert, Moody Press, 1992. Hendriksen, Banner of Truth. Lightfoot, Macmillan, 1895. Malherbe, Anchor, 2000. Marshall, NCB. Martin, NAC. Moore, NCB (replaced). Morris, Tyndale, 2nd. ed. 1992 / NICNT, revised / replaced. Neil, CBC & Torch. Rolston, Layman's. Stott, IVP. Wanamaker, NIGTC. Weiss, ChiRho. Whiteley, New Clarendon, 1969.