When and why were the ancient biblical letters to the Thessalonian church written and why are they important for us to read and apply in the 21st century? What were the social and sociopolitical dimensions of life in the Roman world back then and how were Christians treated?
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Nijay K. Gupta (@NijayKGupta), author of 1 and 2 Thessalonians: Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament Series (Zondervan, 2019).
Who wrote the letters to the Thessalonians, and when were they written?
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta: The apostle Paul is mentioned in both First and Second Thessalonians as the author of these letters. Some scholars have raised doubts about the second letter, whether it was in fact written by Paul, based on some stylistic and structural features and perceived theological differences. But most scholars today consider both letters to come from the apostle Paul.
There’s no clear outline in the New Testament that lays out when his letters were written and in what order, but based on certain clues from the Bible (and information outside of the Bible) most scholars date both of these texts to the middle of the first century CE—2 Thessalonians appears to have been written shortly after 1 Thessalonians. It very well may be that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of all the letters of Paul recorded in the New Testament. In fact, it may be the earliest Christian document that we have now.
Where was the Thessalonian church located and what were notable characteristics of the church?
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta: The ancient port city of Thessalonica was in the region called Macedon (modern day northern Greece). By the time Paul stepped foot in Thessalonica, it was a “free city” of the Roman empire. While Roman Thessalonica was technically ruled by the Roman emperor, it was given some measure of politic autonomy.
According to Acts 17:1-10 and 1 Thessalonians 1:2-2:16, Paul and Silas brought the message of the gospel to this Greco-Roman city and witnessed many lives turned to Jesus Christ by the miraculous work of the Spirit. But this also caused great persecution to fall both on the new believers and on Paul. Luke mentions that this community of believers contained both men and women, mostly Gentiles (Acts 17:4). Paul teaches them to continue to work with their hands, implying most of these Christians were “working class” laborers and not the wealthy elite (1 Thess 4:11). Famously, Paul reminds them how they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). Dozens and dozens of deities were worshipped in Roman Thessalonica. Their adherence to Christ meant severing from these gods, which led to all kinds of social and political tumult. This undoubtedly factored into the advice Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians about finding comfort and joy in the midst of suffering and persecution.
What are the main subjects of each Thessalonian letter and how do they apply to us today?
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta: Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians dwell extensively on “eschatology.” This is one of those big theology words, but it’s actually very important in the Bible. Eschatology relates to “last things”—what happens at the end of normal time. Paul dwells on the return of Jesus Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. He doesn’t do this as a scare tactic to get Christians to behave and unbelievers to repent. His focus is on hope—that Christians can be confident, hope-filled, and even joyful in the midst of resistance and challenges knowing that Christ will return as the living Lord to make all things right. Second Thessalonians also highlights eschatology, but underscores perseverance. God’s people will have to survive many challenging things before that glorious end.
Another key theme of both of these letters is personal integrity. Just as now, as also then, humans sometimes trick, deceive, and cut corners to gain for themselves. Paul repeats the command that believers should participate in honest work, they should try to be as self-reliant as possible, and should maintain a positive reputation in society (1 Thess 2:9; 5:14; 2 Thess 3:11-15).
What is “rapture doctrine” and how do these letters play a part in it?
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta: The rapture doctrine is a theological theory about the end times. Developed in the 19th century, this theory teaches that Christ will return in two stages. First he’ll snatch up (or “rapture”) Christians away from the world. Then, later, he’ll return in final judgment. The word “rapture” comes from the Latin translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (rapiemur), but this verse itself doesn’t make explicit that this is the first of two phases. Most theologians throughout history have believed in a single-event return of Christ.
What is considered by Bible scholars to be a particularly challenging text in each letter? Why? And what conclusion do you draw in your book?
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta: In 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, we have an extended statement by Paul whereby he pronounces judgment and wrath on “Jews.” Some scholars have claimed that this section of text was not written by the real Paul, and it was inserted into this letter later on by an editor or scribe. But because we don’t have a version of 1 Thessalonians without this section, that theory is highly speculative. Others think this statement makes Paul anti-Jewish. But if you read these verses carefully, Paul isn’t saying all Jews are evil; rather, he’s comforting the suffering Thessalonians and telling them that God will re-balance the scales of justice by punishing those particular Jews who are persecuting followers of Jesus.
In 2 Thessalonians, you have reference to the “Man of Lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3) who will oppose God and the church in the end times. Throughout the years, theologians have invested significant effort into figuring out who this person will be. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t offer specific details about this person aside from his wickedness and grandiose aspirations for world domination.
What we do know from Paul is that the Man of Lawlessness will show great power, and he’ll deceive many people into following him. But Paul is also clear that he’ll be no match for Jesus Christ, who will vanquish him swiftly and effortlessly.
For Paul, when it comes to matters of the end times, it’s not crucial to analyze and prepare for specific details. More importantly, believers must (1) test everything and discern if they truly point to Jesus and (2) live in a state of vigilance, always ready for the Master to find them faithful and honest. And (3) Christians can live in the comfort and hope that Jesus Christ will be victorious in the end and live and reign with his people in peace and joy.
1 and 2 Thessalonians: Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament Series is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Nijay K. Gupta (PhD, University of Durham) is associate professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary, George Fox University, Oregon, and author of Paul and the Language of Faith, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies, and Worship that Makes Sense to Paul. He is co-editor of The State of New Testament Studies, and co-editor of a planned second edition of the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press).
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