Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. As part of our Letters to the Church series, we’re taking a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament. This week, we look at one of Paul’s earliest and most upbeat letters: his epistle to the Thessalonians.
Start reading it here: 1 Thessalonians 1
When was it written? Around A.D. 51, making it one of Paul’s earliest letters.
To whom was it written? The new Christian community in the important Macedonian city of Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a major center of trade and military power situated on the sprawling Egnatian Way road.
Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians
Why was it written? After helping to establish the young Christian church in Thessalonica, Paul had been driven out of the city (“torn away,” as he describes it). But the Thessalonians remained in his thoughts and prayers, and after an encouraging report from his fellow evangelist Timothy about the enthusiasm of the Thessalonian church, Paul wrote this letter to encourage the community to continue to stand strong despite the pressures and persecution they faced.
What does it say? The upbeat tone of this letter is evident from its very first sentences: “We always thank God for all of you,” Paul tells his readers, “mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” How encouraging it must have been for the Thessalonians to read those words!
First Thessalonians is a short letter, and much of it is comprised of Paul’s personal words of encouragement. When the letter takes a turn into doctrine and instruction, it is to briefly address two major issues. First, Paul urges the Thessalonians to continually pursue righteous lives despite persecution; and specifically to resist the sexual immorality that would have been an everpresent temptation in a cosmopolitan city like Thessalonica.
Secondly, Paul devotes time to a question that we still grapple with today: how are Christians to understand death? The Thessalonians may have been confused when members of their community passed away before Christ’s promised return. Paul’s words of hope in the face of sorrow and tragedy are commonly read at funerals and memorial services even today: “Brothers, we do not want you to… grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
- 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6,11-12: Christ-followers are urged to exercise self-control with their bodies and impulses, and to earn the respect of others through their honest lives.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:1: Paul famously describes the return of Jesus Christ as something that will come unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: What is God’s will for your life? It’s beautifully summarized here.
What can we learn from 1 Thessalonians? 1 Thessalonians is not a long or complex letter, but in just a few pages, Paul outlines for us a Christian philosophy of life and death. A Christian’s life is to be characterized by prayer, gratitude, self-control, and honorable behavior; and not even the reality of death and sorrow can bring despair to someone whose hope is in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Consider these questions as you read 1 Thessalonians today:
- What does Paul suggest is the appropriate response to persecution?
- What do you think Paul means when he says that Christians do not “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope”?
- Imagine that you’ve received this letter from Paul. What might you write back to him in response?