Although usually described as Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians the opening makes clear he writes as part of a team (1.1). They begin with thankful prayer and a description of the recipients which uses the triad of faith, hope and love (1.2-3). This leads to a description of God’s love and choice and an account of how the gospel and the Spirit first came to them (1.4-5, Acts 17 gives Luke’s account). They followed the authors’ example and in turn their joy in suffering and faith became an example for others and widely known (1.5-9). Their response is described in terms which show they were Gentiles – turning from idols to God and (an important theme of the letter) waiting for the risen Jesus to return as God’s Son in order to rescue them (1.9-10).
That initial contact is then set in a wider context of opposition (2.1-2, Acts 16.16ff gives details) and a defence of the preachers’ motives and actions against accusations (2.3-6). The writers compare themselves to young children, a nursing mother and a father in describing their ministry and appeal to their hard work and exemplary lives when amongst the Thessalonians (2.7-12). Returning to giving thanks they describe how their word was rightly received as God’s word. This, they again recall, was in the context of suffering and they relate this and the hostility of local Thessalonians to new believers to the suffering of Judean Christians, Christ and the prophets who faced hostility from their people (2.13-16). The familial imagery (orphaned) is then picked up again to describe their separation from the churches and they, particularly Paul, insist on their desire to be reunited with them again. As they await Christ’s coming, the Thessalonians are their hope, crown, glory and joy (2.17-19).
The actions they took to reconnect with the young church through Timothy are then described along with their purpose (3.1-3). The believers are reminded they were told of persecution and suffering to come but also told of Paul’s fears his work would prove in vain (3.4-5). We then learn that Timothy has returned from the visit with good news and here of the encouragement and thankfulness this has brought (3.6-10) leading to prayers for reunion, growth in love and strengthening for holiness at Christ’s returns (3.11-13).
The pattern of such holiness is then recalled in some detail, reiterating what was initially said to them (4.1-2). It relates to sexual conduct – which is to be disciplined and distinctive in the light of God’s call and teaching and future punishment (4.3-8) – and mutual love (4.9-10) and life in the workplace and among outsiders (4.11-12). The letter then turns to an area that has been of concern to the Thessalonians – the fate of fellow believers who have died (4.13-14). Paul explains their situation by relating them to Jesus’ resurrection and return which he describes, explaining the different experiences of those who have died in Christ and those still alive until he comes (4.14-18).
The final chapter focuses on the coming Day of the Lord (a major Old Testament theme (eg Amos 18-20) with echoes (5.1-3) of Jesus’ own teaching (cf Mt 24.43, Lk 12.39) and the prophets (cf. Jer 6.14, Ezek 13.10, though “peace and security” also alludes to imperial propaganda). The believers are then described in terms of light and the day, in contrast to the night and those who sleep, and called (again with echoes from the gospels) to be awake and sober (5.4-7). This is then spelled out with a further reference to faith, hope and love and the imagery of armour (5.8, cf Is. 59.17). God’s purposes of salvation rather than wrath are then set out in terms of life together with the Lord Jesus Christ and the Thessalonians urged to encourage each other (5.9-11). The letter closes with a serious of exhortation relating to response to various groups (5.12-14), non-retaliation (5.15) and attitudes of joy, prayer and thankfulness (5.16-18). A correct attitude to the Spirit and prophecy is then urged (5.19-22) before a prayer drawing together themes from the letter (5.23-24) leads into final exhortations and the closing prayer for the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (5.25-28).
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To read 1 Thessalonians online at STEP follow the links below (the right hand box gives some help and can be closed to give text on full screen, the site is worth exploring for more detailed study of any text):
ESV & Greek side by side (with various highlighting (when you hover the mouse over words and references) and search tools that don’t require knowledge of Greek to use)