Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Introduction to the Thessalonian Epistles

This introduction will serve as the beginning of my comments on both of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians.

King Cassander of Macedonia founded the city of Thessalonica and named it after his wife, Alexander the Great’s half-sister, in 315 BC. Thessalonica was a Roman provincial capital with over 200,000 inhabitants in the first century AD. The apostle Paul had first come here from Philippi (1 Thessalonians 2:2) on his second mission trip (Acts 17:2). He preached in the synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths with limited success, although many non-Jews converted, and therefore, the Thessalonian church was predominantly Gentile.

The author of both of these letters is indisputably the apostle Paul. He claims authorship, along with Silas (Silvanus, the Latin variant) and Timothy, as the greetings are nearly identical for each letter. There has been little challenge raised over Pauline authorship, though it may be that “certain peculiarities of these letters, in comparison with the rest of Paul’s writings, are due to the influence of either” Silas or Timothy. Furthermore, early church fathers Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr affirm Paul as the author.

Regarding Silas, he is mentioned some 23 times in Scripture (first in Acts 15, v22,27,32,40). He was a Jerusalem prophet, along with Judas called Barsabbas, who was chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with the news from the Jerusalem council’s decision on Gentile converts to Christianity. After some time, Judas called Barsabbas returned to Jerusalem; meanwhile, Paul chose Silas to go with him on his second mission trip (after Paul and Barnabas split over John Mark). Timothy joined Paul and Silas in Lystra, where Paul circumcised Timothy – unlike Titus earlier – because of the Jews in the area; they knew and frowned on the fact that Timothy’s father was Greek. After teaching that entire region the message of the Jerusalem council, they were led by the Spirit into Macedonia to Philippi. After Lydia’s conversion and some prison time, they went to Thessalonica.

While staying in Thessalonica (3 weeks – 3 months), Paul and those with him (Silas and Timothy, among others) worked hard and received only a little help from the Philippian church (Philippians 4:15-16). This fact is one reason Paul stresses hard work in humility in this letter to the Thessalonians; he strives to correct their faults by his word and deed. Also, as Acts 17 reveals Paul’s strategy in Athens towards non-Jews, here he stresses the end times and coming judgment (1 Thessalonians 4:6; 5:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:1), though it should be noted that the Thessalonians’ faulty eschatological views did not necessarily lead to their poor work ethic. Throughout these letters, Paul spontaneously stresses Christ’s divinity and the Trinity, as, for example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. Also of note, Aristarchus (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24) was a prominent friend – fellow worker, fellow prisoner, and traveling companion – of Paul’s throughout the New Testament, and he was “a Macedonian from Thessalonica.”

Interestingly, Paul had to escape the city after a Jewish-led, rabble riot that resulted in a raid on Jason’s house in search for Paul. Paul fled to Berea, where Luke noted that the audience was nobler, willing to test and receive Paul’s teaching (unlike the Thessalonians as a whole), and then on to Athens and Corinth before returning to Antioch by way of Ephesus for a short rest. Both letters were written from Corinth (Acts 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19) during this – Paul’s second – missionary trip, around 50-51 AD. Very little time passes between the two letters (2 Thessalonians 2:15). It appears that Timothy gave Paul a report on the status of the Thessalonian church, and that report gave Paul occasion to write to them (1 Thessalonians 3:6-7). It seems that only a visit to deliver Paul’s first letter and return trip along with a second report from Timothy gave Paul occasion to write the second letter as a follow up. Without question, 2 Thessalonians supplements 1 Thessalonians, and of the Pauline epistles, only Galatians preceded the Thessalonian letters; only James was written before either of them in the entire New Testament.

Ironically, the similarities between the two letters have led some skeptics to conclude that the second letter is merely an imitation of the first, from a different author. But there are many reasons to reject this conclusion. For example, who better could imitate Paul than Paul? Also some suggest that the second letter has a different eschatological perspective from the first letter, but in reality, the second letter lays out a timeline that the first does not address, precisely because the audience needed to realize that Christ’s second coming hadn’t happened yet. We’ll consider other points as we cover the text.

Vincent Cheung points out that these two Pauline epistles “provide opportunities to cover a wide range of topics. They include the following:

- the doctrine of Scripture

- the doctrine of election

- the second coming of Christ

- the resurrection of the dead

- the ‘catching up’ of believers

- the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the slaughter and dispersion of the Jews in AD 70

- persecution and providence

- the Great Commission

- ‘seeker-hostile’ ministry

- the relation of metaphysics and ethics in apologetics

- justice, revenge, and atonement

- the sin of slander

- the minister’s right to financial support

- the sin of idleness, and the correct policy toward idlers

- cessationism and prophecy

- observations on hermeneutics"

Next, we allow Calvin to sum up both letters: “Paul had instructed the Thessalonians in the right faith. On hearing, however, that persecutions were raging there, he had sent Timothy with the view of animating them for the conflict, that they might not give way through fear, as human infirmity is apt to do. Having been afterwards informed by Timothy respecting their entire condition, he employs various arguments to confirm them in steadfastness of faith, as well as in patience, should they be called to endure anything for the testimony of the gospel… he exhorts them, in general terms, to holiness of life, afterwards he recommends mutual benevolence, and all offices that flow from it. Towards the end, however, he touches upon the question of the resurrection, and explains in what way we shall all be raised up from death… he prohibits them, even more strictly, from inquiring as to times; but admonishes them to be ever on the watch, lest they should be taken unawares by Christ’s sudden and unexpected approach. From this he proceeds to employ various exhortations, and then concludes the [First] Epistle… In the first Chapter [of the Second Epistle], he exhorts them to patience. In the second, a vain and groundless fancy, which had got into circulation as to the coming of Christ being at hand, is set aside by him by means of this argument – that there must previously to that be a revolt in the Church, and a great part of the world must treacherously draw back from God, nay more, that Antichrist must reign in the temple of God. In the third Chapter, after having commended himself to their prayers, and having in a few words encouraged them to perseverance, he commands that those be severely chastised who live in idleness at the expense of others. If they do not obey admonitions, he teaches that they should be excommunicated.”

We’ll study these letters in eight chapter-divided segments, with five coming from 1 Thessalonians and 3 coming from 2 Thessalonians. Let’s consider the Word of God.

No comments: