by Ed Gallagher
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.2 Thessalonians 2:13
This lesson focuses on the two letters that Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica (or Thessaloniki).
- 1 Thessalonians, written from Corinth, Spring 50
- 2 Thessalonians, written from Corinth, Autumn 50 (?)
NOTE: We do not know for sure which of these letters was written first. The longer one is called 1 Thessalonians not because it was written first but because it appears first in the New Testament, and the reason for that is only because it is longer. (Paul’s letters are arranged in the New Testament by length, longest-to-shortest, not by date. Romans was not written first, but it is the longest.) Nevertheless, most scholars (not all) have thought that the longer letter (1 Thessalonians) gives the impression of being earlier than the shorter letter (2 Thessalonians). This study guide will make the same assumption.
How do you imagine the Second Coming of Jesus is going to happen? (Different answers might be presented by the students.) A great deal of our information about the Second Coming is based on Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians. What elements do we find in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18? According to v. 16, there will be a shout (from the archangel?) and a trumpet blast, and then the dead in Christ (i.e., those who have “fallen asleep”) will rise first. Then the ones still alive will meet the Lord and resurrected saints in the air, and they will always be together (v. 17).
(Traditionally, Churches of Christ have emphasized—against premillennialist doctrine—that this passage in 1 Thessalonians does not say that Jesus will set foot on earth, meaning he will not reign on earth for a millennium. Some scholars argue, however, that the purpose of the saints’ meeting Jesus in the air is to escort him back to earth, like a delegation meeting the emperor outside of town and escorting him to town. This understanding is reflected in the Bible Project video (below). This latter teaching is not premillennialist, because in this way of looking at it, Jesus will reign not for a millennium but forever, and his reign will not be on the present earth but on the refashioned earth, i.e., the new heavens and new earth [cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1], which is a sort of “heavenly earth” where the redeemed live forever with God. In that sense, this “new earth” is equivalent to what Christians have usually meant by “heaven” as their eternal home.)
Do you see a “rapture” in this passage? The doctrine of the rapture is based on v. 17, which says that believers will be “caught up” (Latin: rapiemur < rapture) in the clouds. (Also: Matt 24:38–41.) But the idea of a premillennial rapture is that this rapture is secret, known only to the elect, while everyone else continues life as normal (though they might be a little confused or worried). This is recent doctrine, and it is not well founded in Scripture. Clearly Paul does not mean to say that the “catching up” in v. 17 is a secret.
What do you know about the Antichrist? The word is used only 5x in the Bible (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), never in reference to an end-time agent of evil. The popular view of the Antichrist is based mostly on some passages in Revelation and especially the Man of Lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12. About this latter figure, Paul says that he will appear after “the apostasy” (v. 3), that this man exalts himself as if a god (v. 4), that he is in league with Satan (v. 9), that “the mystery of lawlessness” is already active, though restrained in Paul’s day (vv. 6–7), and that the Lord will slay him at his coming (v. 8). It is unclear who might fulfill this description, though suggestions include just about every major political or religious leader, particularly the Pope. Why did Paul present this teaching in this letter? See 2:1–2. Paul wanted to assure his readers that the Lord’s coming had not yet happened. He did not intend to make anyone fearful about the man of lawlessness. All of the proposals for identifying him have problems. Regardless of who he is, the Christian has no need to fear, but rather to give thanks (2:13–17).
So, we have seen that the most well-known parts of these Thessalonian letters concern eschatology (the study of last things). But these letters also contain other important aspects. They are very possibly our earliest extant Christian documents. They can be securely dated to AD 50 because Paul was in Corinth at the time (see below), a period in Paul’s ministry that can be dated archaeologically (see the Gallio Inscription). We read about Paul’s initial ministry in Thessalonica in two passages: 1 Thessalonians 2 and Acts 17:1–9. From Paul’s letter we learn that he and his co-authors (Silvanus and Timothy) had been abused in Philippi (2:2; cf. Acts 16:14–40). From there they went to Thessalonica (100-mile walk), and then on to Berea (45 miles, Acts 17:10–15), then Athens (250 miles; Acts 17:16–34), finally Corinth (50 miles, Acts 18:1–18). Paul stayed in Thessalonica long enough to receive aid from the Philippians while there (Phil 4:16) and to work his trade (1 Thess 2:9). According to Acts (17:5–9), a group of Jews drove the apostles out (cf. 1 Thess 2:15). From Athens, Paul sent Timothy to check on the young Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thess 3:1–5). After Paul had moved to Corinth (Acts 18:1–5), Timothy brought to Paul a favorable report (1 Thess 3:6). The second letter was probably written only a few months after the first. Note the same three co-authors (1:1).
Were the Thessalonian Christians Jews or Gentiles? According to Acts 17:4, “some” Jews joined the movement, but also a “great many” Greeks (i.e. pagans). Paul’s letter also indicates that the church was composed mostly of Gentiles, as he recalls how they turned from idols (1:9). Notice that Paul never quotes Scripture in these two letters to the Thessalonians. What are some of the things that new Christians would need to be taught? Paul stresses in 4:1–8 Christian sexual ethics, which would be essentially the same as Jewish sexual ethics, whereas the pagan world (those who “do not know God,” 4:5) would not have promoted self-control in this area. Foreign missionaries today often encounter people groups with a very loose sexual ethic, just as Paul apparently did in Thessalonica. Of course, American culture also now encourages more sexual freedom than Paul allows. (Further reflections here.) Paul also stresses the need to work for one’s bread (2 Thess 3:6–13).
Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians are important for many reasons, particularly because we see the apostle counseling this very young, Gentile church on how to be faithful, and because these letters provide a great deal of information on our own future. As Paul says, we should “comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).
Additional Questions for Discussion
What does 1 Thess 1:9–10 tell us about the message Paul preached during his missionary travels?
Paul addresses the Second Coming of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11. There seems to be some concern on the part of the Thessalonian believers in regard to the Second Coming. What do you imagine caused their concern? See especially 1 Thessalonians 4:13–16.
How are people “of the day” supposed to be behave? See 1 Thessalonians 5.
What does Paul tell the Thessalonians about the Man of Lawlessness? See 2 Thessalonians 2.
Certain people in Thessalonica seem to be “unruly”. In what way are they unruly and what instructions does Paul give to them? See 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12.
Here are a couple of the videos on the Rapture that I linked above.