Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is considered to be one of the earliest New Testament epistles. The letter by James is usually considered the earliest, but 1 Thessalonians is considered the earliest of Paul’s letters, written approximately at 51 A.D.
Structure of New Testament Letters
Knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Let us examine Paul’s letter looking for these elements to determine the overall message of the letter.
Structure of 1 Thessalonians
The first letter to the Thessalonians is one of the most difficult to outline. When we apply the above form of New Testament letters we see that 1 Thessalonians does not clearly follow the form like the other letters of Paul that we have examined. We will notice this problem in just a moment.
This letter to the Thessalonians comes from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. Silvanus is the Roman name for the Greek name Silas. We know that Paul and Silas were partners on what has been called the second missionary journey. The first verse also records the recipients of the letter: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The rest of verse one is Paul’s salutation to the Thessalonians, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
As we just noted, 1 Thessalonians is difficult to outline according to the standard structure of New Testament letters. In our previous studies we noticed the thanksgiving section of the letter were about 8-15 verses long. The body of the letter would begin after the thanksgiving section with the author stating the purpose of his writing. But Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians does not do this for us. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the first three chapters are the thanksgiving section of the letter. As we look at this letter we read that the Christians in Thessalonica are doing well. Paul is not writing this letter in response to problems or error reported in a local church. In fact, Paul exhorts the Christians to continue what they are doing and to work to excel all the more in their efforts. Recognizing this purpose of Paul will make it easier for us to find the body of the letter and understand the instructions Paul gives to the Thessalonians.
The first chapter of 1 Thessalonians is the offering of thanks to God for their growth: “…remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1:3). Paul is thankful that the Thessalonians receive the word of God even under much affliction from the Jews in the city (1:6; Acts 17:1-9). Paul continues to declare the reasons he is so thankful for the Thessalonians. In verse 8 we read that the Thessalonians were highly evangelistic, that the word of the Lord had sounded forth from them in two Roman provinces. The faith of the Thessalonians is so well known and strong in Christ that Paul, Silas, and Timothy have no need to say anything in the form of correction or reproof about them. Further, it is known throughout Macedonia and Achaia how the Thessalonians had turned away from idols to serve the living and true God. The Thessalonians stood as an example to all believers throughout the near regions in their faith and work in the Lord.
After giving thanks for the faith of the Thessalonians Paul describes the work that Paul did in Thessalonica. Even though Paul had been spitefully treated in Philippi, he came to the Thessalonians in a spirit of gentleness. In fact, Paul says that they not only imparted the word of god to them but also shared their very lives with them. Paul is describing the personal and emotional connection that he has with these Christians. One can easily imagine how moved the congregation would have been at hearing of this letter as Paul describes his love for them. In fact, Paul thinks of them as a father thinks of his own children (2:11). In this spirit of gentleness Paul exhorted, comforted, and charged them to walk worthy of God.
In verse 13 we are able to see that Paul has not concluded this section of thanksgiving. Paul declares that he gives ceaseless thanks to God because of how the Thessalonians received the word of God in the face of the Jewish persecution. Paul points out that the Jewish people in the first century were fill up their sins against God and that God’s wrath has come upon them for their acts.
Paul’s third movement in this section of thanksgiving is to describe to them how he desires to come visit them again soon (2:17). Paul says he was so concerned about the Thessalonians while he was in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) that he sent Timothy to establish and encourage them in the faith, so that they would not be shaken by the afflictions they were enduring. Paul was so anxious to know about the condition of the Thessalonians that he sent to know about their faith (3:5). Timothy returns from Thessalonica with the report that they are standing fast in the faith and continue to think well of Paul. We must recognize that Paul was not concerned about how the Thessalonians were thinking of him for his own personal satisfaction. The Jews were slandering Paul as a false teacher. Paul wanted to know if they still believed he was an apostle and still held on to the teachings he imparted to them. Paul encourages them again in this letter what Timothy had told them as well, but with a personal touch: “For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord.” Paul says that his hope and joy remains knowing that the Thessalonians are remaining in the Lord.
Verse 9 shows that Paul is still in a very long description of thanksgiving for the Thessalonians. “For what thanks can we render to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sake before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your fact and perfect what is lacking in your faith?” (3:9-10). In verse 11 Paul prays that the Lord makes it possible for them to come see the Thessalonians again.
Body of the Letter (4:1-5:12)
The body of the letter is rather small in comparison to the size of the thanksgiving section of this letter. I think this conveys the intended meaning that Paul is grateful to God for the faith and work of the Thessalonians and it is his prayer that they stand firm in the Lord in the face of their afflictions. The body of the letter consists of instructions concerning the conduct of the Thessalonians. Chapter 4 and verse 1 shows this purpose statement: “Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God” (4:1).
Avoid sexual immorality (4:3-8)
Paul declares that the way the Christian is to avoid sexual immorality by possessing one’s own body in sanctification and honor. This is a command for physical self-control. We not to possess our body in passion of lust but to mindful that God has called us to holiness.
Brotherly love (4:9-12)
Paul reports that the Thessalonians are doing well in their brotherly love. But Paul reminds them to increase in brotherly love, to lead a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their own hands. These are specific examples of how we show brotherly love. Treating one another properly includes not stirring up trouble, not putting our noses into other people’s business, and working so that we are not a burden to others.
Consolation concerning the dead in Christ (4:13-5:11)
Paul then turns to giving hope and comfort to the Thessalonians concerning their loved ones who have died in Christ (4:18; 5:11). Paul teaches that those who have died will be raised when the Lord returns. Those who are alive and remain on the earth will be caught up together with those who have died in Christ and be with the Lord forever. The times or seasons of when the Lord will return is not important. What is important is to always be ready because the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. There are no warning signs for the time prepared for our Lord to return. We must simply be ready by living as sons of light.
The closing of the letter gives some final short admonitions to the Thessalonians. These are some “quick hit” reminders on how they ought to be living their lives. First, they are to esteem the eldership because they work hard for the flock (5:12-13). Further, Paul instructs us as to how to treat other brethren, particularly the weak and the unruly. Do not render evil for evil. Always rejoice and always pray. Always give thanks to God for all things. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophecies, test all things, hold fast to goodness, and abstain from evil.
Paul closes with a prayer to God that they will be made holy in their lives and made ready for the coming of the Lord. Paul ends with a greeting to all the brethren in Thessalonica.
I want to look at just one of the many applications that can be learned from the first letter to the Thessalonians. The first chapter contains the highest praise for the faith of the Thessalonians that their faith has spread to many regions and that they are an example to believers everywhere. This is a noble goal that we ought to make for ourselves. We should want to be such lights in the world and examples of great faith in the Lord that other people can look to us for confidence and encouragement as they work to serve the Lord.