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The Thessalonians get quite a bit of screen time in the Bible, but just who were they? And why all the letters to their little neck of the woods?
The folks Paul is writing to lived in a first-century city called Thessalonica, which was located in the Northern Greek region of Macedonia. The city was founded in 316 BCE and taken over by the Romans in 41 BCE (because taking over things was Rome's favorite). Thessalonica was significant economically because it was located right on the water and was also a major stop on a road running between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea (source, p. 1200). Yup. They were kind of a big deal.
As far as religion goes, ancient Thessalonians mostly worshipped various Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Paul says that the group he's writing to "turned to God from idols" (1 Thessalonians 1:9), which means they were probably Gentiles who loved them some idol worship. There was also a small Jewish community in town, but it doesn't seem like Paul ended up winning many converts there since he doesn't include any Jewish shout outs in the letter (source, p. 1200).
Acts of the Apostles actually mentions what goes down when Paul visits the Thessalonians for the first time, but it doesn't totally jive with his letter. As Luke tells it, Paul strolls into town and manages to win over some Jewish converts in the synagogue along with "many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women" (Acts 17:4). Naturally, Paul ticks off everyone else and so "some ruffians" form an angry mob and try to hunt him down. He's able to skip town before they string him up, but the townspeople's main gripe seems to be that Paul is "turning the world upside down" and "saying there is another king named Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). Oh, the emperor will not be pleased.
So what else do we know about the Thessalonians from Paul's letters?
Some scholars think that because Paul talks up his own hard work a ton (1 Thessalonians 2:9), that means the community was also made up of mostly poor laborers. Think about it. Do you think he'd be bragging about his day job as a tentmaker to a bunch of aristocrats? We think not. He also doesn't name drop any important Christians in the community (like he does in other letters), which might mean that no one was enough of a social big wig to get a shout out. These guys are working class all the way (source, p. 1204).
So they're hard workers like Paul, right? Well, that's not the only reason Paul loves them bunches.
• "We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness." (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3)
• "You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia." (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
• "For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!" (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
Paul not only loves them a ton; he also sees them as super special snowflakes who have been chosen by God for salvation:
• "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you." (1 Thessalonians 1:4)
• "God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth." (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
Even though that brings up a whole other set of theological brain twisters (like why hasn't God elected the rest of the people in town for salvation?), they're clearly part of a super select group.
Why does Paul have so much love for these guys? Well, they seem to be model Christians. Even though he mentions that he'd like to come see them and "restore whatever is lacking in [their] faith" (1 Thessalonians 3:9), whenever he gives them instructions on what to do, he lets them know how awesome they've already been doing:
• "We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more." (1 Thessalonians 4:1)
• "You do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more." (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)
• "Concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night[…] But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief." (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, 4)
• "Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing." (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
Paul is actually kind of weirdly passive-aggressive like this when it comes to the Thessalonians. No one needs to write to them…yet here he is. Obviously, there's some reason he needs to mention these things. Maybe not everyone in the community is toeing the line? That could very well be the case. But Paul never lets on that there's any issue. Sure, the Thessalonians are good, but no one's perfect.
Paul's also got a soft spot in his heart for them because of all they've been going through for Jesus. See, the other non-Christian folks in Thessalonica weren't too tickled that there were some people who refused to pay homage to the locals gods. The Thessalonian Christians were getting some major backlash for their beliefs:
• "You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
• "You suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews." (1 Thessalonians 2:14)
• "We sent Timothy[…] to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions." (1 Thessalonians 3:2-3)
• "We ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring." (2 Thessalonians 1:4)
• "This[…] is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us." (2 Thessalonians 1:5-7)
Why all the persecution? Both Jews and Gentiles alike would not be pleased that these Christians were breaking off and creating their own religious identity. Idol worship was tied in with all kinds of important social, economic, and political rituals. Thessalonica needed people to pay homage to the gods in order to keep them on the city's side and to avoid any kind of bad stuff happening (you know, like natural disasters, crime, or economic collapse). Rejecting all that meant you would be socially ostracized or worse: stoned to death in the streets (source, p. 1200).
This might be another reason why Paul's pleased as punch with these guys. Remember, he's just gotten back a great report from Timothy. Before that, he was "afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted [them] and that [his] labor had been in vain" (1 Thessalonians 3:5). Now, he's just found out how much butt these guys are kicking in the face of tough times. You can't come down too hard on them, can you?
Paul does have to correct the Thessalonians on one issue. He's praised their faith (standing strong in the face of naysayers), their love (treating everyone über nice), but they're a little bit lacking in the hope department. Huh…faith, hope, and love. Where have we heard about those before?
Some of the Thessalonians are a little bummed because they think that faithful Christians who died before Jesus comes back won't get to share in eternal life with him. But Paul's convinced that no one—even dead people—get left behind:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
Even this doesn't refer to some horrible thing they've been doing or some crazy in-fighting. It's more like a misunderstanding. Usually, when Paul is trying to settle squabbles like this, they're way bigger and much more complex. Thessalonica isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn close.
Since, most scholars don't think that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, that means it probably wasn't sent to the real Thessalonians, either. That means that the second letter to this group doesn't really tell us much about the actual Christians living in Thessalonica around 50 CE (source, p. 1213-14).
But whoever the intended recipients of this letter were, they had a lot of the same issues as those mid-first century Christians. Persecution was following them around, too, for one. They also had a couple issues to sort out. In fact, this second letter parrots the first one pretty closely except for two sections. The author is concerned that some Christians think "that the day of the Lord is already here" (2 Thessalonians 2:2). He's also got some harsh words for anyone in the community who doesn't want to pull their weight:
Keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us[…] For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat[…] Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 10, 14)
This is probably the most assertive either of these letters get…and this one wasn't even penned by Paul. We can kind of see why these "other Thessalonians" would start to feel this way, though. Christians are saying the world is going to end soon. So why bother getting up in the morning for work? But this anonymous author knows that Christians need to keep on keeping on. And as Paul said the first time, "let us not fall asleep as others do" (1 Thessalonians 5:6).
Now that's some authentic Pauline wisdom you can take to the bank.