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The Thessalonian Letters

Updated on April 18, 2012


The two letters to the Thessalonians are often called Paul’s eschatological letters, but I have come to see them through the theme of eternal hope. A timeless hope that translates itself from early 51 A.D. right through to our lives, our own age and culture today. Paul balanced the beam of communicating hope, while avoiding the temptation to satisfy the curious. Terry C. Muck, General Editor of the NIV Application Commentary makes this insightful observation:

“Perhaps it is more accurate to say that in order to communicate hope - true hope- Paul must avoid satisfying our curiosity. It is possible that too specific an answer about questions to which we can only know partial answers actually discourages hope and instead contributes to a spiral of despair when we learn about our own limitations.”[1]

Today there lies a parallel of common struggle with that which is facing the believers of Thessalonica. They were persecuted Christians, persecuted by their culture and their economy. The believers were in danger of losing hope in their relatively new-found faith due to the pressure from the cosmopolitan community as well as the false preachers of the day who twisted theology to fit their ideals and ambitions.

Paul, who had to leave the city abruptly, felt the need to reassure this young community of believers. He wanted to give them hope, a common human desire. Paul knew that in order to have meaning in life, there has to be a confidence that a brighter future lies ahead. It is in the interaction between these two truths - the desire for future meaning and the limitations of what can and should be known- that hope resides.

Again, Terry Muck comes to our aid and gives clarity for the believers today:

“We have a whole industry built around the provision of therapy for despairing people…another whole industry built around predicting the future - prophecy, channeling, and the occult. In either case, true hope is lost. Paul resists dealing only with the danger of despair, and he resists providing answers that cannot really be known. Instead, he points to Jesus Christ, whose life embodied both human despair and limitation, showing how faith in God’s sovereignty is our only source of hope.”[2]

[1] Michael W. Holmes, Terry Muck, (Gen. Editor), The NIV Application Commentary, 1st & 2nd Thessalonians, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI., (1998) pg 11

[2] Holmes, pg 12

Thessalonica Odeum

Literary Context

Both writings to the Thessalonians are more than just theological letters written to a congregation with which Paul had connection but rather, were intensely personal letters to a young body of struggling Christians which Paul had to leave in haste and far too soon.

When the Apostles and other leaders were unable to address a problem or concern, in person because of either geographical or political issues, they did the next best thing and wrote letters. The letters provided a way for the early Christian leaders to minister from a distance and yet express their views and their hearts. Hence, the letters were far more than just substitutes for personal presence, they were authoritative substitutes. Paul, then, wrote not only as a friend seeking the welfare of the loved people of the Thessalonica Church but, as an Apostle. His letters of instruction, warning and encouragement carried authority as he wrote as Christ’s authentic representative.[1]

Identification as letters was possible because of the presence of the components of the ancient letter. 1. Identification of the writer: from Paul, Silas and Timothy (1:1), 2. Identification of recipients: to the Church in Thessalonica (1:1), 3. A greeting, Grace and Peace to you. (1:1), 4. Prayer and/or thanksgiving: We always thank God for you… (1:2), 5. Body - teaching and exhortation (2:3-5:24), 6. Final greeting and farewell (5:25-28). These features are seen in the second letter as clearly as they are seen in the first.

The date and place of writing is thought to be from Corinth where Paul and company went after He left Athens, where he had taken refuge from Thessalonica. Timothy had been sent back to Thessalonica from Athens to check on the situation, and then met Paul in Corinth to deliver his report (Acts 18:5; 1Thess. 3:6). Paul’s inclusion of Silas in the greeting indicates it was written during his second missionary journey, putting the date of the letter sometime in late 50 A.D. or early 51 A.D. with the 2nd letter written just a few short months after the first.[2]

[1] J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hayes, Grasping God’s Word, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI., (2001) Pg 219

[2] John MacArthur, New Testament Commentary, 1st & 2nd Thessalonians, Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL., (c2002) pg 8

Thermaic Gulf

Map of Thessalonia
Map of Thessalonia

Historical Context

1. The City of Thessalonica:

Thessalonica, modern Thessaloniki (formerly Salonika), the largest most important city of Macedonia from Hellenistic times down to the present day, was located slightly less than a hundred fifty kilometres southwest of Philippi[1]. The city is built on a rising hill overlooking the gulf, a thriving seaport at the head of the Thermaic Gulf (the Gulf of Salonica)[2]. Perhaps Thessalonica’s greatest asset was its location spanning the Egnatian Way, the major east-west highway of the Roman Empire, which ran from what is now Albania to Byzantium (Constantinople; Istanbul). Thessalonica’s main street was part of the great highway linking Rome with the eastern regions of the Empire. Major north-south trade routes also passed through Thessalonica expanding its position as a wealthy commercial center. Noting the strategic location, William Barclay writes,

“It is impossible to overstress the importance of the arrival of Christianity in Thessalonica. If Christianity settled there, it was bound to spread east along the Egnatian Road until all Asia [Minor] was conquered and the West until it stormed the city of Rome. The coming of Christianity to Thessalonica was crucial in the making of it a world religion.” (The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Rev. ed. [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1975],181)[3]

[1] F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI., (1977) pg 223

[2] John W. Bailey, James W. Clarke, George A. Butterick, (Gen. Editor) The Interpreters Bible, Abingdon, Nashville, TN., (1955) Pg 245

[3] MacArthur, pg 3

Thessalonica Ampitheater

2. Thessalonica’s Beginnings

Thessalonica, was the capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia, and ruled by a praetor. It was originally founded about 315 B.C., and named after Thessalonica, daughter of Philip II, half-sister of Alexander the Great and the wife of Cassander, one of Alexander’s generals, who became king of Macedonia after the latter’s death. Cassander was also the one who built the city.[1] In 42 B.C., through some shrewd political posturing involving strategic support between two Caesars, Thessalonica became a free city, governed by its own local rulers, a group of five or six men known as “politarchs” (NIV “city officials; Acts 17:6, 8).

[1] Ibid

Their Ancient Religions

Isis and Osiris
Isis and Osiris
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Cultural Issues

The Christians in Thessalonica were, for the most part, new converts to Christianity who had grown up in, and consequently thoroughly socialized in a Greek cultural environment. Religiously, Thessalonica offered something for nearly everyone.

Among the city’s population of about 200,000 there was a strong Jewish community,[1] strong enough to support a thriving synagogue. The traditional Greek cults and philosophic traditions were also well represented, as were various mystery religions. Thessalonica was known for its early devotion to the cult of the Roman Emperor, minting coins declaring Caesar to be divine. Thessalonica even boasted a sanctuary of the Egyptian gods, among whom Isis and Osiris were prominent. There is also evidence of local devotion to the “highest god” and local cults such as that of Cabirus, which during the first century A.D. was becoming the chief cult of the city.[2]

All this religious activity was closely associated with civic and political concerns. In Thessalonica, leaders fostered devotion to the imperial cult in order to solidify good relations with Rome. Therefore, any seeming attack on the cult of the emperor was viewed as a serious threat to the city’s economic and political well being. In addition, the city’s wealthy ruling aristocracy sponsored the local cult of Cabirus. This reinforced, to their advantage, the hierarchical nature of Greco-Roman society but also gave the citizenry a shared sense of identity and unity. Thus, to proclaim the exclusive claims of another deity was virtually to attack the city itself and tantamount to treason.[3]

[1] Holy Bible, Full Life Study Bible: New International Version (The), Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI., (c1992) Pg 1858

[2] Holmes, pg 18

Next: Thessalonian Letters Part 2


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    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 7 years ago from Canada

      Johnny Joe, thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read the hub. I have found that I understand better what the Spirit is wanting to tell me from the Word when I understand the context in which it was written. It helps me to not be tempted to put my own slant on things and in my human selfishness, oh how I want to do that! But as I submit to the Spirit's leading and teaching in the Word in the context in which it was given, I am given greater security of unadulterated truth. Blessings to you Ulrike Grace

    • Johnny Joe profile image

      Johnny Joe 7 years ago from USA


      Great hub. It is very important to understand the situation and culture of the times while reading bible. Good that you have made a point out of it.

    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 7 years ago from Canada

      Thanks for stopping in to have a read.



    • The Last Quill profile image

      The Last Quill 7 years ago from Lancaster, CA

      I'm a follower, also of Apostle Paul.

    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 7 years ago from Canada

      Thank you rls...I am humbled by your words...may the Lord open all of our eyes to the teaching He has for us in any number of ways...we have to be so careful not to box Him, yet not account something He has not put His name to. Thank you for stopping and giving us your beneficial comments.

      Blessings to you brother


    • profile image

      rls4immanuel 7 years ago

      Very good work Ulrike Grace. The relevancy of Scripture today indeed stands out within itself and you brought forth this theme very well in your work. If we are wise, we will learn from history and praise God that by His grace so much significant has been preserved for our benefit. Unfortunately our culture does not recognize the inate value in historical study, much to our loss. Well done and I look forward to your future works. All glory to God!

    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 7 years ago from Canada

      cristina327; thank you for your kind words I am glad you found this informative and a blessing

      Pamela99; thanks, I was as well amazed at its relevancy to today...the Bible is indeed a today book

      Vladimir Uhri; You are so welcome, I hope you found it enjoyable and helpful.

      Blessings to you all and thank you for stopping to read.


    • Vladimir Uhri profile image

      Vladimir Uhri 7 years ago from HubPages, FB

      Thanks you for background review of Thessalonians believers.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      I thought you did an outstanding job with this hub in explaining both the chapters of the Thessaloians and it is amazing how so much related to today. Great hub.

    • cristina327 profile image

      Maria Cristina Aquino Santander 7 years ago from Manila

      This is indeed an excellent hub presenting a very good background account of the church of Thessalonica. Thank you for sharing this great wealth of information. Remain blessed.

    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 7 years ago from Canada

      Thanks voice for coming and having a read...blessings


    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 7 years ago from Canada

      Praise God, for all teaching and wisdom comes from Him. I'm glad you enjoyed this RevLady. Again it was a learning experience for me. The letters always mean so much more to me when I have seen the history in their making and as well it astounds me when they speak so clearly into our own culture and age today. Somethings never do change do they? Be blessed this evening and stay in close to the Lord.

      Love UlrikeGrace

    • RevLady profile image

      RevLady 7 years ago from Lantana, Florida

      A comprehensive summary of the Epistles treated very well.

      When reading we Bible it sometimes seem as though I am reading about today. We have cultural issues, economic issues, belief issues, God and god issues and so forth. As you stated so succinctly:

      "Today there lies a parallel of common struggle with that which is facing the believers of Thessalonica. They were persecuted Christians, persecuted by their culture and their economy. The believers were in danger of losing hope in their relatively new-found faith due to the pressure from the cosmopolitan community as well as the false preachers of the day who twisted theology to fit their ideals and ambitions. "

      Well done UlrikeGrace. It was a joyful reading and learning experience for me. Thank you.

      Forever His,

    • thevoice profile image

      thevoice 7 years ago from carthage ill

      excellent hub