The Thessalonians - Their Situation, Circumstances and Challenges

Michael Hardt

T&T 2013 Q4

The situation of the Thessalonians sheds much light on Paul’s first epistle to them (and vice versa). In short, the epistle was designed to equip these young believers for the challenges awaiting and surrounding them. Once we see this link it will be easier to apply this letter in a profitable way to our Christian lives.

A Profound Work in a Short Time (Acts 17)

It was on his second missionary journey that Paul reached the city of Thessalonica (today’s Thessaloniki). He had travelled through Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) to Philippi (Acts 16) and then to Thessalonica, from which he had to flee to Berea (Acts 17:10–11). Subsequently, he went to Athens (Acts 17:15; see also the map on the inside cover).

His stay in Thessalonica was marked by extreme brevity, effective preaching, and fierce opposition. Acts 17 provides the details: Paul, on three sabbaths, demonstrated to the Jews in the synagogue that Jesus was the Christ (‘to the Jews first’). As a result, some of these Jews believed and joined themselves to Paul and Silas (as did a multitude of Greeks and women who belonged to the upper social class: v. 4). This stirred up the envy of the Jews, so much so that they resorted to mobilising the mob of the city and ‘set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people’. Jason, Paul’s host, was dragged before the city magistrates. At Jason’s house, however, they could not find Paul and his friends. Perceiving the acute danger, the Thessalonian converts had ‘immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea’ (vs. 1–10).

This background information is important for a full appreciation of this epistle — and of the work of God in this city. The duration of Paul’s visit must have been limited to around three weeks (‘three sabbaths’, followed by the uproar resulting in them being sent away ‘immediately’). This may seem surprising in light of the evident depth of the work that occurred in this short time period (see the next section).[1]

A Bright Conversion and a Good Testimony (ch. 1)

The Thessalonians came from an idolatrous background (v. 9) but had experienced a real conversion. These babes in Christ were already marked by qualities that are often wanting in far more experienced believers — ‘work of faith, and labour of love, and enduring constancy of hope’ (v. 3) — and they had become imitators not only of Paul but also of the Lord (v. 6). Their conversion had been a complete ‘U-turn’. Now they were serving the living God and waiting for His Son from heaven (vs. 9–10). The news of their faith had ‘made the headlines’ and spread far and wide (v. 8). This is what happens when the gospel arrives ‘in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance’ (v. 5).

No Evil Intention and No Lack of Concern (ch. 2)

But what about chapter 2? The apostle, at great length, speaks about himself, his motivations and his intentions. Why? Evidently, there was a great danger that the circumstances confronting the Thessalonians (as to which see below) would give rise to false impressions about Paul and his work, possibly as a result of arguments of some adversaries: this man came here, caused a great stir and then disappeared suddenly, leaving you behind in all these troubles (v. 14) — all he is interested in is followers he can make money from … Arguments along these lines are countered in chapter 2. Paul carefully demonstrates that:

  • He was willing to endure suffering (the wounds inflicted in Philippi (v. 2) were hardly healed when he embarked on the work in Thessalonica).
  • He and his helpers had liberty to speak the word with much earnest striving (v. 2).
  • They never used dishonest techniques (v. 3), nor flattery or other such means to please men, but had the consciousness of God proving their hearts (v. 4).
  • There was no trace of covetousness on their part. As an apostle, he had a right to live off the gospel but he did not (vs. 6, 9).
  • They had shown real care — like a nursing mother (v. 7) and like a father (v. 11).
  • The message the Thessalonians received was really the word of God (v. 13).
  • The decision to flee and to leave them had not been taken lightly. In this case, out of sight certainly did not mean out of mind (v. 17).
  • That they had not returned to Thessalonica was not a result of lack of willingness but the activity of Satan who had hindered them (v. 18).
  • Far from being indifferent to the lot of the young Thessalonian believers, Paul regarded them as fruit of his labour, the reality and beauty of which would be displayed at the Lord’s coming (v. 19), and not as money spinners of no personal and spiritual interest.

Why does the apostle, under the guidance of the Spirit, go to such great lengths in demonstrating the purity of his motives? His desire is to encourage and further the Thessalonians, but he could not be of any help to them if they were led to believe insinuations casting doubt on his intentions. Hence, in order for his work to be effective with the Thessalonians, Paul had to address these matters.

A Persecuted Company (chs. 2–3)

The young believers in Thessalonica also suffered persecution, not only during Paul’s visit but also after his departure (2:14; 3:4). Paul, knowing that these trials would be a severe test for the faith of young converts, had warned them beforehand that this was what they would have to expect (3:4), and he wrote this letter to encourage and strengthen them.

Timothy’s Visit (ch. 3)

This line of thought is continued in chapter 3. Far from being indifferent to the sufferings and persecutions endured by the Thessalonians, Paul had sent Timothy[2] from Athens to Thessalonica (around 300 miles!). Timothy had now returned and brought with him the good news about their faith, their love and their desire to see the apostle again (vs. 1–6). Paul assures them of his continued prayers and expresses his confidence in God in all respects, whether in the matter of granting him opportunity to visit again (vs. 10–11) or in the matter of their need to increase and to be established further (vs. 12–13).

It is hard to imagine that Paul waited long before sending Timothy (‘we could no longer forbear’: 3:1) or that much time elapsed between Timothy’s return and the writing of this epistle, so the Thessalonians were still young converts when the epistle was sent. Most likely only a few months had passed since their conversion.

A Clean Life in a World of Guilty Pleasures (ch. 4, part 1)

The Thessalonians’ surroundings were not only idolatrous but also marked by immorality. Historians tell us that the two were linked, so much so that temple prostitution was not uncommon. This is why the apostle was led to take up the subject of practical sanctification in chapter 4, warning earnestly of fornication and the ‘passionate desire’ that characterised ‘the nations who know not God’.

The Thessalonians were marked by brotherly love (v. 9) but this virtue was not to be abused. It was not to be relied on as a substitute for their own honest work (v. 11; see also the ‘disorderly’ referred to in 5:14 and 2 Thess. 3).

A Living Hope (ch. 4, part 2)

The Thessalonians were not just holding the truth of the Lord’s coming — they were actually waiting (1:10). In addition, they were doing so to the extent that they were very disappointed when some of their number were taken to be with the Lord. They feared that the deceased believers might miss out on the moment of Christ’s return. This concern is addressed by the well-known passage in chapter 4 that deals with the rapture and the preceding resurrection of those who are Christ’s.[3]

Practical Exhortations (ch. 5)

Now that Paul has acknowledged God’s work in the Thessalonians (ch. 1), explained his sudden departure and lack of opportunity to return to them (chs. 2 and 3) and addressed their concerns (ch. 4), he is free to teach, admonish and exhort as he does in chapter 5. They were ‘sons of light’ and ‘sons of day’ and, as such, were to behave in a sober way and in accordance with the light (vs. 1–10).

They were to build one another up. Young in the faith as they were they had no appointed elders but those who performed such service, and these were to be regarded highly (vs. 11–15). A sequence of short yet powerful exhortations (vs. 16–22) is followed by the apostle’s closing comments, which are beautifully expressive of his confidence that God would wholly sanctify and keep them (v. 23) and that the work started would be seen through to completion by God Himself (v. 24).


We have seen that this refreshing letter is best understood when one takes into account the background of the recipients: young converts, surrounded by an immoral world, faced with persecution and deprived, for a time, of any visits of the apostle who had been instrumental in their conversion. In the light of this, the depth of the work in their souls and the exemplary nature of their Christian lives become a great challenge to those of us who have been Christians for many years. How do we measure up? Could the same commendations be given about us? How good to know: ‘Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it’ (5:24).


[1] So much so that some expositors have assumed that Paul’s visit must have lasted much longer (e.g. C E Stuart, Tracings from the Acts of the Apostles).

[2] It seems that Timothy accompanied Paul on this journey (Acts 16:3) as did Silas (17:4). They then stayed in Berea for a while and then followed the apostle to Athens (17:15 and 18:5).

[3] Paul had spoken to them about the rapture (as well as the day of the Lord: see 5:1–2). Their ignorance had to do with ‘them that are fallen asleep’ (4:13), in particular the way in which they would ‘rise first’ and then have a part in the rapture together with those still alive at this time. During his visit, the apostle had not dwelt on the possibility of some of the Thessalonians dying before the rapture. This prospect would not have been in line with the fact that the rapture is the immediate expectation of the Christian.