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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 12 - THE THESSALONIAN EPISTLES


For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.282-286; R.H.Gundry, pp.353-358. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.343-358.

1 THESSALONIANS

The background to these early Pauline epistles is found in the Acts of the Apostles.

1. AUTHORSHIP AND DESTINATION

Background to the epistles
Paul's secondary missionary journey provides the background to the two epistles (see Acts 16-18.  Note especially Acts 17:1-9). "They were written within a few months of each other while Paul was engaged in the ministry in Achaia. The first letter was written on receipt of the report that Timothy brought back to Corinth, and it included his name and that of Silas in its greeting" (M.C.Tenney). [1]

The Thessalonian converts
The Spirit of God directed Paul into Europe.  Taking the Egnatian Way he arrived at Thessalonica with Silas and Timothy.  The apostle preached with some success in the local synagogue on three successive sabbaths (Acts 17:2).  Converts included Jews, God-fearers, and a number of the city's 'prominent women'.  The majority of them appear to be non-Jews involved in idolatry.  The contents of his gospel message may be indicated by 1 Thess.1:9-10:

"For they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath".

Persecution caused the apostle to move on to Berea and then to Athens.  From here Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica to support the new Christians, while he travelled on to Corinth. Later, Timothy brought news about the young church to Paul at Corinth, which prompted the writing of the first letter.

2. DATE AND PLACE OF WRITING

Place of writing
It is commonly held that the epistle was written from Corinth as a response to Timothy's good news that the young church was going on in the faith (3:6).  The apostle had ministered in Achaia and Athens (1:7-8; 3:1-5).

Date of writing
The fact that Paul was brought before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, helps with dating (Acts 18:12-16).  An inscription at Delphi sees Gallio in office in A.D. 52.  The length of his office is not known, nor do we know exactly when Paul appeared before him. Therefore a date of c.A.D. 50/51 is generally agreed.

3. CONTENTS AND OUTLINE

The contents of the epistle
The textbook indicates:
"Its content is generally twofold: praise for the steadfastness of the Thessalonians under persecution from the Jews and the correction of certain errors and misunderstandings that had grown up among them.  The main doctrinal theme concerned the return of Christ, a topic that is scarcely mentioned in Galatians unless it appears in Paul's allusion to waiting for the hope of righteousness (Gal.5:5)." [2]

The parousia, or return of Christ, was part of the apostolic preaching.  This is supported further by other NT references (e.g., Acts 3:21; 17:31 and Jam.5:7-8).

An outline of the epistle
The heart of the epistle is pastoral, its emphasis practical, and its touch personal. This is M.C.Tenney's analysis and outline of the book:

  • 1 Thessalonians: The Growth of a New Church Salutation (1:1)

  • The state of the church (1:2-10)

  • The apostle's relations with the church (2:1-3:13)

  • The problems of the church (4:1-5:11)

  • Concluding exhortations and greetings (5:12-28).

 
4. EVALUATION

The pastoral concern of Paul is very evident in this letter.  He followed up his pioneer works in a number of ways, including letters.  The problems he addressed in the epistle are especially those associated with the Gentile believers, and compare with those in Galatians.  For example, Paul deals with fornication (4:3) and idleness (4:11; 5:14).  The background to the letter is persecution (1:6), and the answer given to it is loving fellowship (4:9-10). Paul has to clarify his teaching on the parousia because some of the fellowship had died. What would happen to them at the Lord's return? (See 1 Thess.4:13-18.) The thought of the Lord coming as a 'thief in the night' (5:4) compares with the teaching of Jesus (Mt.24:43; Lk.12:39-40).  Note the practical nature of the letter in the light of the truth of the Lord's return.


2 THESSALONIANS


M.C.Tenney says, "The second epistle to the Thessalonians was written to remove the misapprehension that 'the day of the Lord is just at hand' (2:2)". [3] Paul was repudiating some teaching falsely attributed to him by others, perhaps especially in the form of a forged letter.  So, he writes: "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come" (2:1-2).

1. CONTENTS AND OUTLINE

M.C.Tenney's outline of the epistle is mindful of its eschatological content:

  • 2 Thessalonians: The Expectation of the Church

  • Salutation (1:1-2)

  • Expectation in persecution (1:3-12)

  • Explanation of events (2:1-17)

  • Exhortations to readiness (3:1-15)

  • Benediction and salutation (3:16-18).

 
2. EVALUATION OF THE EPISTLE

There is a very strong eschatological feel about this epistle.  Paul says that 'signs' are to precede the coming of the Lord. Apparently three major events will presage the Lord's coming:

  1. A sudden acceleration of apostasy from godliness (2:3)

  2. The removal of some restraining influence (2:6-7)

  3. The complete unveiling of the incarnation of evil who will be animated by Satan and who will oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God (2:4,9).


Again, as with 1 Thessalonians, the practical teaching of this epistle is thrown into sharp relief by its eschatological emphasis (3:6-15).  Christians must live in the light of the Lord's return.

3. TRADITION AND AUTHORITY

M.C.Tenney makes a important note on the subject of tradition in the NT church:

"First and Second Thessalonians are among the first of Paul's writings.  They testify that the message Paul preached was no novelty, but that it had already been a settled body of faith for some time.  Paul's reference to his preaching among them (2 Thess.2:15) the same things that he wrote in his letter shows that he had a well-defined system of belief, and his use of the word 'tradition' (2:15; 3:6) corroborates this impression.  For Paul 'tradition' did not mean a loosely transmitted rumour of doubtful authenticity.  It meant rather a body of instruction that may have been oral, but was carefully preserved and exactly formulated.  He used the cognate verb in describing his transmission of the facts of the life of Christ, which for him constituted the gospel (1 Cor.15:3: delivered), and Luke used the same verb to describe the narration of the facts of the life of Christ by eyewitnesses (Lk.1:2).  The 'tradition' must have included ethical precepts, for he implied that it was a rule of conduct that the brethren could follow (2 Thess.3:6)".

Tenney adds, "This tradition, furthermore, was not only authentic but authoritative.  In Galatians Paul said that his gospel was exclusive in its truth and that no other could be substituted for it." [4] Study 2 Thess.3:14 here.  Paul's tradition was apostolic (see 1 Cor.15:1-3; cf., 11:23) and also divine (1 Thess.2:13; cf., Gal.1:11-12).

ENDNOTES

1. M.C.Tenney, p.282.

2. M.C.Tenney, p.282.

3. M.C.Tenney, p.284.

4. M.C.Tenney, pp.285-286.



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