The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians
Introduction of the Epistle
1- About Thessalonica and St. Paul's Evangelical Mission to its People:
Situated east of Macedonia on a gulf bearing its name, the ancient city of Thessalonica was founded in 315 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great's generals; he named it "Thessalonica" in honor of his wife, Alexander's half-sister, from his father king Phillip of Macedonia. Being on a major trade route between orient and occident, it flourished as a commercial centre, attracting a large influx of inhabitants.
The Romans conquered Macedonia in 168 B.C. and, twenty-two years later, organized it into a single province, with Thessalonica as the capital city. While retaining its Macedonian lifestyle, Thessalonica became a "free" city under Augustus, with its own authority to appoint a governing board of magistrates (similarly to Athens)(1), who were called "politarchs."
After his vision of the Macedonian man pleading with him saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us," (Acts 16:9,10) St. Paul crossed the Aegean Sea, heading towards Europe; during this second missionary journey he evangelized Thessalonica (around 51 A.D.) Greece was the entry point through which the Christian Faith was introduced to Europe. Philippi(2), the first city that Sts. Paul and Silas visited (along with St. Luke - author of the "Acts"), saw the first female European convert, Lydia, the seller of purple (Acts 16:11-15). Furthermore, Philippi was the city where Sts. Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and jailed, where a great earthquake shook the prison's foundations and opened its doors, and where the jailer and all his family were baptized (Acts 16:22-34).
Following their visit to Philippi, the two apostles passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, and came to Thessalonica. There, and for three consecutive Sabbaths, Paul reasoned with the Jews; consequently, some Jews were persuaded, plus a great multitude of the devout Greeks, including many leading women. The Jews who were not persuaded thus became envious and rose up against those who believed, among whom was Jason, who harbored the two apostles in his house (Acts 17:5). The mob of unbelievers accused the apostles of "acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king - Jesus." (Acts 17:7) Thereupon they attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring out the apostles to the people. Failing to find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city - they were subsequently released after posting bail(3) (Acts 17:1-9).
Quite likely, St. Paul's sojourn in Thessalonica was short; he supported himself, using his skills as a tent-maker, so as not to be a burden to the brethren (1 Thes. 2:9). Nevertheless, that short period of time sufficed for founding the small Thessalonian Church.
The burden of Jewish relentless resistance forced the brethren to arrange for the apostles' departure by night to Berea, where they resumed their evangelization, but under more favorable conditions. The Jews in Berea "received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so." (Acts 17:11) Many of them believed, in addition to a large number of Greeks, both men and women. (Acts 17:12)
However, when the Thessalonian Jews heard of Paul's preaching in Berea, they came there also and stirred the crowds, thus forcing Paul's departure to Athens by sea, followed by Silas and Timothy. (Acts 17:13-15)
In Athens, the city of idols, Paul had many debates with the city's Epicurean(4) and Stoic(5) philosophers. Although the Epicureans ridiculed Paul when he spoke to them about the Resurrection and Judgment, some did believe, among whom was Dionysius the Areopagite(6).
St. Paul subsequently departed from Athens and went to Corinth, Achaia's capital city, where he resided with Aquila and his wife Priscilla - tent-makers like himself (they had both recently come from Italy, because the Roman emperor Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome).
The Thessalonian Church was always on St. Paul's mind, and his love for the Thessalonians never waned, since they were the first harvest of Christian believers through his preaching, characterized by their strong faith, their adherence to the Bible, their love for St. Paul (1 Thes. 3:6), and their steadfastness, tolerance, and endurance of tribulation for Christ's sake, when confronted with the Jews' persecution. St. Paul thus saw in them his, "hope," "joy" and "crown of rejoicing" (1 Thes. 2:19).
Following his departure, he tried to visit them twice, but the Jews' enmity apparently prevented him from realizing his wish(7) (1 Thes. 2:17,18). He therefore sent them Silas and Timothy to edify them in the Faith, and also to bring him their news.
Bearing mostly pleasing news from the Thessalonian Church, Timothy came from Macedonia to St. Paul, during the latter's debates with the Jews in the Corinthian synagogue (1 Thes. 3:6). St. Paul then wrote his two epistles to the Thessalonians, from Corinth, during the period 51 - 53 A.D. (Acts 18:1) This was probably a short time after having evangelized them (ranging from a few months to two years): "But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time ..." (1 Thes. 2:17)
2- About St. Paul's Two Epistles to the Thessalonians:
The first written New Testament book was the epistle of St. James, followed by St. Paul's two epistles to the Thessalonians (although some sources contend that St. Paul's first epistle was that to the Galatians).
Those two epistles reveal the extent to which St. Paul missed the Thessalonians, and his longing to see them. He reminds them of his service in Thessalonica, thanking God for their embracing the Faith, and for their endurance of suffering and persecutions - as he did - for Christ's sake; he exhorts them to adhere to a life of holiness, love and brotherly affection.
The two epistles, nevertheless, treat the Lord's Second Coming which, clearly, worried the Thessalonians who expected this to be imminent: What, then, befalls those who had fallen asleep in Christ? Will they be deprived from participating in Christ's victorious procession? (1 Thes. 4:13-18)
The Thessalonians furthermore risked relapsing into their old lifestyle, along with its depraved practices associated with idolatry, before converting to Christianity; additional concerns pertained to the daily duties related to the novices.
It should be noted that the second epistle is an extension of the first - added to it a few months later to clarify misinterpreted portions with regards to Christ's Second Coming (1 Thes. 4:15-18), which some thought was imminent (2 Thes. 2:1-12). This enabled St. Paul, inspired by the Spirit, to address misconceptions concerning the Lord's Coming and associated events which had hitherto not been mentioned with sufficient clarity ("the falling away," "the man of sin," "the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God," "whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth.") (2 Thes. 2:3-12)
Also, St. Paul urged those who had resorted to a languid lifestyle, in anticipation of the Lord's Coming while relying on the support of the Church's wealthy, to continue in their life's struggle, to desist from easy living, and to follow Paul's example who "worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you." He also reminded them of his instruction, "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." (2 Thes. 3:8,10)
Both epistles point to the existence of a stable ecclesiastic system in Thessalonica, as part of a single overall Church (2 Thes. 2:14, 4:10), at an early stage, which preceded even the written gospels. They also contain the principles of the Christian Faith, which extended across the centuries; the Thessalonians believed in the omnipotent God the Father (2 Thes. 1:2, 8, 9), in our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God (1 Thes. 1:1,10, 5:9,10), Who died, rose from the dead (1 Thes. 4:14), ascended into heaven (1 Thes. 4:16), and will come again to judge the world (1 Thes. 4:16, 2 Thes. 2:1), in the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 1:5,6, 4:8, 5:19), and in eternal life (1 Thes. 4:14-17).
(to be continued)
(1) This is contrary to the situation in Philippi, which was then under Roman rule. In the third century A.D. Thessalonica became a Roman colony; an Orthodox episcopate was founded there in the fourth century, where St. Demetrius was martyred in 304 A.D. Through Thessalonica, Christianity was introduced to the Slavs and Bulgars. During the fifteenth century (1430 A.D.) the Ottomans conquered Thessalonica and converted St. Demetrius' Cathedral to a mosque. After the first world war and following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Thessalonica was returned to Greece, and is now known as "Salonica."
(2) The city of Philippi was founded in 356 B.C. by the Macedonian king Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Abandoned at an unknown date, it is now the site of archaeological excavation. It was the hometown of Muhammad Ali, Egypt's first Ottoman ruler, who ruled Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
(3) In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul referred to his labor and toil in serving them (1 Thes. 2:9)
(4) Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 B.C. Epicureanism declares pleasure to be the sole intrinsic good, attained by living modestly and gaining knowledge of the workings of the world.
(5) Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century B.C., taught that Stoicism is a way of life, that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, that a sage or person of "moral and intellectual perfection" would not suffer such emotions, that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with nature, and that the best indication of a person's philosophy was how they behaved not what they said.
(6) He later became Athens' first bishop - a church to his name stands in the midst of Athens to this day.
(7) It is not easy to ascertain that St. Paul returned to visit the Thessalonian Church. Other than the two statements given in Philip. 4:16 and 2 Tim. 4:10, there is no mention of Thessalonica in any part of the New Testament books.