Wenstrom Bible Ministries; Pastor-Teacher Bill Wenstrom; Sunday, July 29, 2018; www.wenstrom.org
First Thessalonians is one of the earliest epistles the apostle Paul wrote to the churches which he had planted in the Roman Empire and many scholars believe it is the earliest.
It is addressed to a Christian community in the city of Thessalonica which Paul and Silas had only planted months before penning this letter.
This community was established during Paul’s second missionary journey according to Luke’s account in the book of Acts who recorded that Paul proclaimed the gospel to the Jews for three weeks (Acts 17:1-9), but then was forced to flee to Berea.
The contents of First Thessalonians indicate that he spent at least several months proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles of this city after spending three weeks proclaiming to the Jewish community.
The canonicity of First Thessalonians is supported by the fact that it along with Second Thessalonians is included in the earliest collections of New Testament writings which circulated in the early centuries of the church. These two epistles appear in the list of New Testament books compiled by Marcion and they also appear in the Muratorian Canon.
First and Second Thessalonians also appear in the lists compiled by Eusebius.
He classified these two letters as “homologoumenos” which means that they were “acknowledged” books or in other words, they were undisputed in the church during his day and age.
In the past several decades, the study of Graeco-Roman rhetoric has been viewed by many scholars such as Witherington and Wanamaker as useful for interpreting Paul’s epistles.
However, before the advent of this approach, most interpreters have viewed epistolary rhetoric as more appropriate and I am in agreement with them.
The study of Graeco-Roman rhetoric is useful for several reasons. The first is that Paul intended his letters to be read aloud like a speech.
Secondly, the majority of people in the Roman Empire were very familiar with rhetoric and plus many were trained in rhetoric.
However, it is my view that one must not embrace this approach to the interpretation of Paul’s letters to rigidly so as to force his letters into a particular pattern that cannot account for the extent of their content or structure.
First Thessalonians is written according to the pattern of letter writing found in the ancient world during the first century called the “epistle” and is written according to the pattern of letter writing found in the ancient world during the first century.
The general form of a first-century letter contained the following elements: (1) The author identifies himself (2) The author identifies the recipient (3) The greeting (4) Main body of the epistle (5) Closing greeting (usually a simple word wishing the recipient good health) (6) Final signature of endorsement by the writer of the letter.
The final signature of endorsement authenticated the letter’s contents and served as protection against fraudulent correspondence.
The final signature was also important because frequently an amanuensis was employed to write the letter.
In First Thessalonians, Paul follows the correct chronological order of a first-century letter’s introduction: (1) The author identifies himself first (verse 1) (2) Then he identifies the recipient of the letter (verse 1) (3) Then he gives a greeting (verses 2-10).
First Thessalonians follows the usual Pauline letter structure (1) Opening (1:1) (2) Thanksgiving (1:2-10) (3) Body of letter (2:1-5:11) (4) Closing (5:12-28).
There was a constant exchange of letters in the early first century churches.
This was by apostolic command.
A good example of this procedure is found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (cf. 1 Thess. 5:27).
Thus, First Thessalonians was meant not only to be read by the believers in Thessalonica but also by all the churches in Macedonia.
The structure of First Thessalonians fits the various situations and problems Paul wishes to address with the Thessalonian Christian community, which of course, is the case in each of his writings.
The opening of the letter (1:1-10) follows the normal pattern of greeting and thanksgiving which is also the case with the letter’s conclusion.
The body of the letter can be divided into three major sections. The first (2:1-20) can be divided into two sections.
The first (2:1-16) presents a review of Paul’s ministry among the Thessalonians in the past and the second (2:17-20) expresses Paul’s desire to return in the future to minister to the Thessalonian Christian community.
The second major section (3:1-13) is also divided into two sections.
The first (3:1-10) speaks of Paul dispatching Timothy to Thessalonica to determine the state of the Thessalonian church and it also refers to the glowing report Timothy came back with.
In the second section (3:11-13) Paul communicates to the Thessalonians the contents of his intercessory prayer to the Father for them.
The third major section addresses the spiritual life of the Thessalonian Christian community which appears in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:11 and is divided into four sections.
The first (4:1-8) contains an exhortation to continue to abstain from sexual immorality and for the Thessalonians to continue to experience their sanctification.
The second (4:9-12) is an exhortation for them to continue to exercise the love of God toward one another.
The third (4:13-18) is designed to encourage and assure the Thessalonians and addresses the concerns of the Thessalonians regarding their dead in Christ in relation to the rapture or resurrection of the church.
The fourth (5:1-11) is an exhortation for the Thessalonians to conduct their lives as children of light in light of the imminency of the day of the Lord.
The fourth and final section of the epistle is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, which contains final instructions and a benediction. It can be divided into seven sections.
The first (5:12-14) addresses the relationship between the Thessalonian Christian community and their spiritual leaders, i.e. their pastor-teachers.
The second (5:13-22) contains six commands followed by four prohibitions, which are all related to the spiritual life of the Thessalonian Christian community.
The third (5:23-24) communicates to the Thessalonians the contents of one of Paul’s intercessory prayers to the Father on behalf of them and this was of course to encourage them that Paul was praying for them.
The fourth (5:25) is a request for the Thessalonians to intercede in prayer for Paul, Silas, and Timothy while the fifth (5:26) has Paul requesting the Thessalonians greet one another with a holy kiss.
The sixth (5:27) is a command to have First Thessalonians read to every member of the Thessalonian Christian community.
The seventh (5:28) contains the closing benediction