FIRST EPISTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS.
Of Thessalonica, and the first introduction of the gospel into that city, see notes on Acts 18:1-9. In St. Paul’s time it was the metropolis of all the countries comprehended in the Roman province of Macedonia. It was the residence of the proconsul who governed the province, and the questor who had the care of the emperor’s revenues. It was also the seat of the courts of justice, and the place where the affairs of the province were managed; and as it carried on an extensive commerce by its merchants, it was full of inhabitants, among whom were many philosophers and men of genius. To this city there was likewise a constant resort of strangers from various quarters, so that it was remarkable for the number, the wealth, and the learning of its inhabitants. But, like all other cities of the Greeks, it was in a state of deplorable ignorance as to matters of religion, and sunk in idolatry and all sorts of vice and wickedness. It therefore stood in peculiar need of that gospel which is designed to enlighten and reform the world. Hence, after the persecution at Philippi, the apostle, accompanied by Silas and Timothy, went directly to this city, with a view to call its inhabitants to repentance, and to faith in the Saviour of sinners. And as there was a Jewish synagogue in the city, he entered into it soon after his arrival, according to his custom, and three sabbath days reasoned with the Jews out of the Scriptures. His discourses, however, had not that success with the Jews which might have been expected, a few of them only believing; but a great number of religious proselytes embraced the truth, and were made new creatures in Christ Jesus, among whom were many women of the first distinction in the city. The greatest part, however, of the Thessalonian converts were such as had been idolatrous Gentiles, as appears from this epistle, in which he speaks to their church in general, as having “turned from idols to serve the living God.”
But St. Paul had not preached long in Thessalonica before the unbelieving Jews raised a tumult against him, Silas, and Timotheus; his success among the proselytes and idolatrous Gentiles having excited their indignation and envy. They gathered a company, and even brake into the house of Jason, where the apostle and his assistants lodged, intending to bring them forth to the people, that they might be put to death in the tumult. Divine Providence, however, preserved them; and the brethren, by night, sent them away to Berœa, a neighbouring city of note, where likewise they were instrumental of converting numbers of religious proselytes and idolatrous Gentiles, and even many of the Berœan Jews. But the Jews of Thessalonica, hearing of the success of the gospel in Berœa, hastened thither, and stirred up the idolatrous multitude, so that Paul was constrained to depart. Silas, however, and Timothy, not being so obnoxious to these Jews, abode there still. In this flight from Thessalonica the apostle was accompanied by some of the Berœan brethren, who conducted him to Athens, and who, when they departed, carried his order to Timothy to come to him forthwith; which he did, but was soon sent back by the apostle to Thessalonica, to exhort and comfort the new converts there.
St. Paul, meeting with little success at Athens, left that place before Timothy returned from Thessalonica, and went forward to Corinth, the chief city of the province of Achaia, where he was soon made the happy instrument of converting many to the faith of Christ, and of establishing a large and flourishing Christian church. He had not been long at Corinth when Timothy came to him from Thessalonica, (Acts 18:5,) and, no doubt, gave him such an account of affairs there, as made him sensible that his presence was greatly wanted in that city. But the success which attended his preaching rendering it improper for him to leave Corinth at that time, to supply the want of his presence, he immediately wrote to the Thessalonian brethren this epistle, (the first of all the epistles which he wrote,) in which he doubtless treated of those matters which would have made the subject of his discourses had he been present with them. From these facts and circumstances, all which are related in the history of the Acts, it appears that this first epistle to the Thessalonians was written, not from Athens, as is said in the interpolated postscript at the end of the epistle, but from Corinth, not long after the publication of Claudius’s edict against the Jews, mentioned Acts 18:2, about A.D. 54.
As to the design of this epistle, Dr. Macknight supposes that the apostle’s principal object in writing it was to prove the divine authority of Christianity, by a regular chain of arguments, in answer to some objections which the heathen philosophers had advanced against the gospel; but this supposition, as Mr. Scott justly observes, seems to be “grounded on a mistaken notion that the philosophers deigned, at so early a period, to enter into a regular disputation with the Christians, when, in fact, they derided them as enthusiasts, and their doctrine as foolishness.” But though there seems little probability that the apostle intended this epistle to be a regular defence of the Christian religion, yet it furnishes us with four convincing arguments of its divine original. For it proves, “1. That many and great miracles were wrought by the preachers of the gospel, professedly for the purpose of demonstrating that they were commissioned by God to preach it to the world. 2. That the apostles and their assistants, by preaching the gospel, brought upon themselves, everywhere, all manner of present evils, without obtaining the least worldly advantage, either in possession or in prospect: that in preaching this new doctrine they did not, in any respect, accommodate it to the prevailing inclinations of their hearers, nor encourage them in their vicious practices: that they used none of the base arts peculiar to impostors for gaining belief, but that their manner of preaching and acting was in all respects suitable to the character of missionaries from God; so that, on account of their personal character, they were entitled to the highest credit as teachers. 3. That the first preachers of the gospel delivered to their disciples, from the very beginning, precepts of the greatest strictness and holiness; so that by the sanctity of its precepts, the gospel is shown to be a scheme of religion every way worthy of the true God, and highly beneficial to mankind. 4. That Jesus, the author of our religion, was declared to be the Son of God, and the Judge of the world, by his resurrection from the dead; and that by the same miracle his own promise, and the predictions of his apostles concerning his return from heaven, to reward the righteous and punish the wicked, especially them who obey not his gospel, are rendered absolutely certain.” To these arguments in proof of the gospel revelation little can be added, as the same writer observes, except what arises from the fulfilment of the Old Testament predictions; and therefore the very same arguments have, since the apostle’s days, been often urged by those who have undertaken the defence of the Christian religion. But it is proper to remark, that, “in the mouth of the apostle and his assistants, these arguments have double weight; for the miracles, the character, and the precepts to which they have appealed were not those of other persons, but their own. And as in this epistle they have affirmed, in the most direct terms, that the Thessalonians were eye-witnesses of the miracles which they wrought for the confirmation of the gospel, and that they knew the sanctity both of their manners and of their precepts, no doubt can be entertained of these things. For it is not to be supposed that three men of common understanding would have joined in writing after this manner to such numerous societies as the Thessalonian church, and the other churches in which they ordered this epistle to be read, unless the things which they affirm were done in their presence had really been true. And if they are true, there can be no doubt that Paul and his assistants were commissioned of God, and that the gospel which they preached is of divine original, and of universal obligation.”
There is, however, no satisfactory evidence that the apostle, in writing this epistle, had any such thing in view as to prove the truth of Christianity by a regular chain of argument against the heathen philosophers. His chief design rather was to confirm the faith and hope of the Thessalonian believers, and to prevent their being shaken by the persecutions they met with, and to engage them, from what they had already suffered in the cause of Christ, and the extraordinary character they had hitherto maintained, to make still greater advances in the holy religion which they had embraced. Accordingly, after the inscription and benediction, (1 Thessalonians 1:1-2,) he, I. Celebrates the grace of God toward them, 1 Thessalonians 1:3-10. II. He reminds them of the courage and fidelity with which he had preached the gospel at his first entrance among them, in spite of all the danger to which his zeal had exposed him, and appeals to them for the unexceptionable and disinterested manner in which he had conducted himself, and the tender affection and concern he had always manifested for their spiritual interests, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. III. He acknowledges the happy success which had attended his labours in their conversion to the Christian faith, which they had openly and courageously professed, notwithstanding the persecutions to which they were thereby exposed; observing that he himself, and his fellow-Christians in Judea, had met with the same ill treatment from the perverseness of their own countrymen; and assuring them, that though he had been unwillingly detained from them longer than he intended, his affection for them was not decreased, but that he still rejoiced in them as his glory and his crown, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20. IV. He assigns the reason of his sending Timothy to them, and speaks of the great comfort he had received from the pleasing account which Timothy had given of them, adding that he was continually praying for their further increase and establishment in grace, and for an opportunity of making them another visit, chap. 3. V. He proceeds to renew the practical exhortations he had given them while he continued with them; recommending especially chastity, in opposition to all kinds of uncleanness; justice, in opposition to all manner of fraud and dishonesty; charity, in which he acknowledges they had already excelled; and a diligent application to their proper business, joined with a prudent behaviour toward their heathen neighbours, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. VI. To comfort them under the loss of some of their Christian friends, he assures them that those who were fallen asleep in Jesus should be raised again at the last day, and, together with those that remained alive, should be caught up to meet the Lord, and share his triumph. And, having thus laid a foundation on which to build their hope, he takes occasion to urge the necessity of preparing for so awful an event, that it might not take them unawares; representing the peculiar obligations they were under to sobriety and watchfulness, from the superior light and knowledge they enjoyed, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 to 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Lastly, he recommends to them a respectful behaviour to their ministers, and gives some directions for their conduct toward persons of different tempers and characters in the church, adding other practical precepts of a more general nature; and having offered up a solemn petition for their perfect sanctification and preservation in holiness, he concludes with his usual benediction, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28.
It appears from Acts 20:1-2, that St. Paul afterward visited Thessalonica, but we find nothing more in the Scriptures respecting this church except the second epistle which the apostle wrote to it. Christianity, however, has never been quite extinct in that city since it was first planted there by St. Paul. There are in it at present thirty Christian churches belonging to the Greek Christians, about forty Jewish synagogues, and forty-eight Mohammedan mosques. The city, being now under the dominion of the Turks, is called by them “Salonichi,” which is a corruption of its ancient name.