Chapter 1.
I. Letter Opening (1:1)

Literary Analysis

The letter opening is the most formally consistent section of Paul’s Letters, being made up of three epistolary conventions. First, there is the sender formula, which typically consists of three formal elements: (1) the name of Paul; (2) a title, most commonly “apostle” (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:1) but sometimes also “servant” (Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1); and (3) a short descriptive phrase, indicating the source of his apostleship or servanthood: “of Christ Jesus” (missing only in 1 Thess. 1:1 and 2 Thess. 1:1). Atypical of letters of his day, Paul includes the name of cosenders at the end of this formula and identifies them as “brother(s),” in distinction from the more authoritative title of “apostle” used to identify himself. Second, there is the recipient formula, which consists of two formal elements: (1) the designation of the recipient, normally the noun “church” along with the name of the city or region where the church is located; and (2) a brief phrase that positively describes the readers’ relationship to God and/or Christ, such as “in God (our) Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1); “in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 1:1). The third and final epistolary convention of the Pauline letter opening is the greeting formula, which includes three formal elements: (1) the greeting: “grace and peace”; (2) the recipient: “to you”; and (3) the divine source: “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The typical or expected form of the Pauline letter opening, therefore, is as follows:

  1. Sender formula (1:1a)
    1. Name of sender
    2. Title
    3. Short descriptive phrase, indicating source of title
    4. Cosender(s)
  2. Recipient formula (1:1b)
    1. Identification of recipient
    2. Short phrase, positively describing the recipients’ relationship to God
  3. Greeting formula (1:1c)
    1. Greeting
    2. Recipient
    3. Divine source

That these same three formulas (although in a much more simplified form) were typically included in the openings of secular letters of Paul’s day (see letter openings in Exler 1923: 24-60; Roller 1933: 57-62; White 1986) shows that the apostle is obviously not the creator of this epistolary format but borrows from the letter-writing practices of his day. Nevertheless, Paul does not slavishly follow these practices but adapts them to suit his particular audience and specific needs, as seen in the way he “Christianizes” the greeting (see comments below). The apostle’s skill as a letter writer also manifests itself in those letter openings where he adapts or significantly expands his expected epistolary conventions so that this opening unit functions not merely to establish or maintain contact with his readers but already anticipates key concerns or themes to be developed in the body of the letter. For instance, Paul significantly expands the sender formula in the letter opening of Romans in order to present himself to his unknown readers as the divinely appointed apostle to the Gentiles, who has a God-given responsibility to share with them his gospel (see Weima 1994b). Paul similarly embellishes the sender formula in the letter opening of Galatians so that it stresses the divine rather than human source of his apostleship (“Paul, an apostle not from men nor through any man but through Jesus Christ and from God the Father”), thereby issuing a preemptive strike for the defense of his authoritative status taken up in the lengthy autobiographical apology that opens the letter body (1:11-2:14). Compared to these expanded letter openings, however, the epistolary conventions that open Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians are simple and unembellished. This is likely due to the good relationship that Paul enjoys with the Thessalonian congregation and the absence of any questions in this church about his apostolic status or authority.

Exegesis and Exposition

1Paul and Silvanus and Timothy. To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace.

A. Sender Formula (1:1a)

1:1a The letter opens in typical fashion with the sender formula, including the mention of cosenders: “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy” (Παῦλος καὶ Σιλουανὸς καὶ Τιμόθεος, Paulos kai Silouanos kai Timotheos).

The name “Paul” (the Greek Paulos is a transliteration of the Latin Paulus or its variant Paullus) is one of three names that the apostle, as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-29; also implied from his appeal to appear before Caesar: 25:10-12, 21, 25; 26:32), likely had: the “given name” (praenomen), the name of the ultimate founder of the family (nomen gentile), and the family name (cognomen; Harrer 1940; Bruce 1977: 38). We do not know the apostle’s first two names since in his letters he uses only the third, or family, name. When a slave or foreigner was granted citizenship, his first two names were that of the Roman who obtained the citizenship for him, but he retained his third name, or cognomen (Murphy-O’Connor 1996: 41). The name “Paul” is derived from his Hebrew name “Saul” (the Greek Saulos is a hellenized form of the Hebrew Šāʾûl), which the writer of Acts uses in the early part of his narrative dealing with the apostle’s life (7:58; 8:1, 3; 9:1, 8, 11, 22, 24; 11:25, 30; 12:25; 13:1-2, 7, 9). “Paul” was a rather common cognomen and had either the affectionate meaning of “little” or the pejorative sense of “small” (Hemer 1985: 183).

Contrary to the epistolary practice of our day but entirely in keeping with that of the Greco-Roman world, Paul lists his name as the first element of the letter opening. The only exception to this practice was in letters of petition when one was addressing a person of higher rank. Paul, however, writes to his readers as neither an inferior nor even an equal but as one having authority over them, as indicated by his normal addition of the title “apostle” (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:1). The absence of this title here in his letter to the Thessalonians is, therefore, striking. A likely explanation for this omission is that, in contrast to several other letters (esp. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians), Paul’s apostleship was not an issue with the Thessalonian congregation, and so in the letter opening he has no need to assert his authoritative status. Thus Paul mentions his apostleship only once in his two Letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7a), and this single instance serves not to stress his authority but to demonstrate the opposite point: that he did not, in a self-serving and heavy-handed manner, assert his right as an apostle to be supported financially by the Thessalonian congregation, but that he self-sacrificially worked with his hands to provide his own support rather than become a burden to them. Repeated challenges to his apostolic status in later years, however, caused Paul to become explicit in his letter openings not only about his own apostleship but also to distance his own authoritative status from that of various fellow workers included as cosenders (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:1, “Paul, an apostle,... and Sosthenes, the brother”; see also 2 Cor. 1:1; Col. 1:1).

Although not a common epistolary practice in the letters of that day, Paul includes here, as he typically does, the names of cosenders: Silvanus and Timothy. The mention of these two individuals raises two related questions: First, what role, if any, did the cosenders play in the writing of this letter? Second, if Paul emerges as the ultimate or real author of the letter, what is the significance of his including the names of Silvanus and Timothy as cosenders?

With regard to the first question, the widespread use of the first-person plural “we” in the rest of the letter has caused many to conclude that Silvanus and Timothy played an active role in the composition of the letter. The situation is likened to that of a group project in which all three individuals contribute to the subject matter, organizational structure, and perhaps even the vocabulary of the letter. Against this scenario, however, are three instances in the letter where the text shifts significantly to the first-person singular, suggesting that the first-person plurals in the letter ought to be read not literally but literarily. The first instance is 2:18, where Paul’s desire to revisit the Thessalonians is originally expressed in the plural (“We wanted to come to you”) but then clarified with a personal interjection in the singular (“In fact, I, Paul, wanted to do so more than once”). The second occurrence is the inclusio formed between 3:1-2 and 3:5: the plural expression “Because we could no longer contain it,... we sent Timothy... in order to comfort you concerning your faith” is replaced by the singular expression “Because I could no longer contain it, I sent [Timothy] in order to learn about your faith.” The third occasion is 5:27, where the letter closes with a strong exhortation given in the singular: “I cause you to swear an oath in the name of the Lord that this letter be read to all the brothers.” These three texts (see also 2 Thess. 2:5 and 3:17) suggest that, though the names of Silvanus and Timothy are included as cosenders, Paul is the real author of the letter, so that the plurals used throughout the correspondence ought to be taken literarily rather than literally.

This conclusion raises the second question: since Paul is the real author of the letter, why has he included Silvanus and Timothy as cosenders? That Paul’s epistolary practices are never accidental but relate in some way to his persuasive strategy suggests that the mention of cosenders involves something more than mere courtesy (contra Williams 1992: 21). According to Doty (1973: 30), secular letters of that day often mentioned the name of the letter carrier to “guarantee that what he had to say in interpreting the letter was authorized by the writer”; thus Silvanus and Timothy may have been mentioned in the letter opening for this reason (see also Wanamaker 1990: 68). The mention or recommendation of a letter carrier, however, typically occurred not in the opening but in the closing section of the letter (C. Kim 1972), and this appears to be Paul’s practice elsewhere (Rom. 16:1-2; Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-9). A more likely reason for including the names of Silvanus and Timothy is that both have played a key role in the Thessalonian congregation: Silvanus in the establishing of the church (Acts 17:1-10), and Timothy in the subsequent strengthening of the church (1 Thess. 3:1-5). The inclusion of these two men as cosenders, therefore, gives further weight or authority to Paul’s letter; it not only shows the Thessalonians that the apostle is well informed about the current situation in their congregation but also that there is agreement between Paul and these other leaders about the response expected from the recipients in their present circumstances (Wanamaker 1990: 68).

Although the details of Paul’s life are well known to most modern Christians, those of Silvanus and Timothy are not and thus require some general comment. The “Silvanus” mentioned in the letters of Paul and Peter is almost certainly the same person identified as “Silas” in Acts. The longer name was the one commonly known and used in Greek and Roman communities (2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:12), whereas the shorter name was employed in Jewish circles (Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 40; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:4, 10, 14, 15; 18:5). Silvanus (Silas) first appears on the biblical scene after the meeting of the Jerusalem Council, when he and Judas Barsabbas, both of them “leading men among the brothers” (Acts 15:22), are sent to the Antiochian church to convey in person the council’s decision. After splitting with Barnabas following the first missionary journey, Paul chose Silvanus (Silas) to join him for the second missionary journey, during which time the two missionaries, along with Timothy, established the church in Thessalonica. Later in the second missionary journey, Silvanus (Silas) is sent from Athens to somewhere in Macedonia, perhaps Philippi, after which he rejoins Paul, who by this time is in Corinth (for a more detailed account of the movements of both Silvanus and Timothy during this time, see comments on 1 Thess. 3:1). Sometime after his ministry in Corinth, Silvanus (Silas) served as Peter’s associate in Rome.

That the name of Silvanus is listed before that of Timothy as a cosender of 1 Thessalonians likely reflects the role that each one played in Paul’s ministry. Silvanus took Barnabas’s place as Paul’s senior associate on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41; note also how Acts 17:1-10 describes Silas’s role in the mission-founding work at Thessalonica but says nothing about Timothy’s involvement), and Timothy similarly replaced John Mark as Paul’s junior associate (G. F. Hawthorne, ISBE 4:858).

Timothy, despite his junior associate status, enjoyed an especially close relationship with Paul, evident in the apostle’s reference to him in the early days of his ministry as “my beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17) and similarly late in his ministry as “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). Paul, however, was not the only one who played a role in Timothy’s conversion: he was also influenced by his grandmother Lois and mother, Eunice, a Christian Jew (2 Tim. 1:5; Acts 16:1). Timothy first joined Paul in his hometown of Lystra during the second missionary journey and from this time onward was heavily involved in the apostle’s ministry, both in establishing new churches and also in returning to these churches as Paul’s emissary. It is in both these capacities that the Thessalonians knew Timothy, since he was present during the mission-founding visit of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:1-10) and was soon thereafter sent back to this congregation to strengthen their faith in the face of opposition (1 Thess. 3:1-5). Timothy then rejoined Paul, who by this time was in Corinth, and brought to the apostle not only a good report about the Thessalonians’ enduring faith despite persecution and their ongoing love for Paul (3:6) but also news about some areas where they were “lacking” in their faith (3:10). This information from Timothy motivated Paul to write 1 Thessalonians.

B. Recipient Formula (1:1b)

1:1b The second formal section of the Pauline letter opening, the recipient formula, occurs here in its typical or expected form, consisting of two formal elements: (1) the designation of the recipient with the noun “church,” along with the name of the city or region where the church is located; and (2) a brief phrase that positively describes the readers’ relationship to God and/or Christ: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ Θεσσαλονικέων ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ, tē ekklēsia Thessalonikeōn en theō patri kai kyriō Iēsou Christō).

To the modern hearer, the word “church” evokes images of ornate buildings or complex denominational structures—images that all too easily cause one to miss the significance of this term. For Paul’s identification of the recipients of his letter with the designation “church” reveals an important theological truth about the way in which the apostle views his converts, particularly their continuity with ancient Israel as the people of God. Although the noun ekklēsia (church) in secular Greek refers to an officially summoned assembly of citizens (see Acts 19:32, 39, 41), in the LXX it (or its verbal cognate) describes the people of God, whether they are assembled for worship or not (see, e.g., Deut. 9:10; 18:6; 23:2-4; 31:30; Judg. 20:2; 1 Sam. 17:47; 1 Chron. 28:8; Neh. 13:1). In light of the Jewish heritage of Paul, as well as his references to the “church(es) of God,” both later in this letter (1 Thess. 2:14) and elsewhere (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:16; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13), “it seems unreasonable to doubt that in I Thess. 1, 1 Paul is thinking of the Christians of Thessalonica as members of the ‘Church of God,’ and that he is fully aware of the biblical background and theological implications of his use of the term” (Deidun 1981: 11; also Malherbe 2000: 99). That the term ekklēsia reflects Paul’s understanding of the predominantly Gentile church of Thessalonica as the new people of God is confirmed by his reference to them a mere three verses later as those who are “loved by God” and who know their “election” (1:4), terms similarly used in the OT to refer to Israel but now applied to NT believers (for more about these two expressions, see the comments on 1:4; on the phrase “God who indeed gives to you his Spirit, who is holy,” see the comment on 4:8).

Paul distinguishes the Thessalonian church from all other ekklēsiai or assembled groups in Thessalonica—not only the Jewish synagogue but also other voluntary associations that might gather under the same designation—with the prepositional phrase “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (en theō patri kai kyriō Iēsou Christō). The wide range of meanings expressed by the jack-of-all-trades preposition en (for this preposition, BDAG 326-30 lists twelve different nuances) makes it difficult to determine its precise sense here. The two most commonly identified meanings are either a spatial/locative sense (i.e., the church of the Thessalonians lives in the presence of God and Christ) or an instrumental sense (i.e., the church of the Thessalonians is brought into being by God and Christ). As Holmes (1998: 37) admits, deciding between these two meanings is complicated by the fact that the phrase “in God (the Father)” is as rare in Paul (only six other occurrences, of which only one [2 Thess. 1:1] matches the usage here) as the phrase “in (the Lord Jesus) Christ” is common (some 170 occurrences), and it is not clear whether the atypical phrase ought to be understood in light of the typical or whether the reverse interpretive method should be followed. What ought not to be overlooked in this debate, however, is what both interpretations have in common: the primary and thus crucial role of the Divine, both God and Christ, in the origin and ongoing life of the Thessalonian congregation. Just as the following thanksgiving section (1:2-10) is directed not to the Thessalonian Christians but to God, who has elected them and is the ultimate cause of their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope” (see comments on 1:3), so also the letter opening acknowledges that the church of the Thessalonians is the result not of the human work of “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy” but of the divine initiative of “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]

The occurrence of both divine persons (“God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”) as the double object of the single preposition (“in”) is significant. That the same pattern is found in Paul’s other letter openings as well is similarly important for understanding the apostle’s Christology. The high frequency of this construction has wrongly caused many to dismiss the apostle’s joining of God and Christ as merely a fixed or stereotyped expression. But as Fee notes (2007: 49n62): “It is easy to forget that here is a Jew who in his younger years would not have dared breathe the name of YHWH but who now as a matter of course puts θεός and Jesus together as the compound object in a single prepositional phrase.” Yet it is not just here and in other letter openings that Paul does this: throughout both of his Letters to the Thessalonians he frequently links God and Jesus in an intimate manner (see 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:11-13; 5:18; 2 Thess. 1:1, 2, 8, 12; 2:16-17; 3:5). That Paul does not feel the need to explain or justify this juxtaposition suggests that the apostle possesses a high Christology, which would have been an important part of his missionary preaching and which he can now safely assume to be accepted by his readers. The apostle’s exalted view of Jesus Christ is reflected in the title “Lord,” which was the regular word used in the Septuagint for Yahweh and also a common term used in Hellenistic sources for their pagan gods.

C. Greeting Formula (1:1c)

1:1c The third and final element of the letter opening is the greeting, which here differs from the pattern followed in all his later letters in that it omits the divine source: “Grace to you and peace” (χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη, charis hymin kai eirēnē).

The greeting “Grace and peace” sounds familiar to the ears of contemporary Christians because this is the greeting that opens virtually all the letters ascribed to Paul (a slightly expanded form “grace, mercy, and peace” is found in 1 Tim. 1:2 and 2 Tim. 1:2) and other NT writers (1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:2). This greeting would have sounded distinctive, however, to the predominantly Gentile congregation of Thessalonica since it differs from the common infinitive greeting that typically opened secular letters of their day: χαίρειν (chairein), which literally means “Rejoice!” but has the colloquial sense of “Greetings!” (so Acts 15:23; 23:26; James 1:1; 2 John 10, 11).

The minority of Jewish members of the Thessalonian church would have similarly found Paul’s greeting unique since the few surviving primary Semitic letters of that time period have either the same form chairein in correspondence written in Greek (5/6 Ḥev 3, 6; Mas 1039-307/1) or the word שָׁלוֹם (shālôm, lit., “Peace!” but colloquially, “Greeting!”) in correspondence written in Hebrew and Aramaic (5/6 Ḥev 1, 4, 10, 12; papMur 42, 43, 44, 46, 48; Mas 16-89). There are a few secondary Semitic letters—letters not discovered in their original manuscript form but as incorporated into existing documents—that have an apparent similarity with Paul’s epistolary greeting: “Greetings... good peace” (chairein... eirēnēn agathēn: 2 Macc. 1:1); “Mercy and peace” (2 Bar. 78.3; Tob. 7:12 in Codex Sinaiticus). There are dangers, however, in using these secondary or incorporated Semitic letters. For example, the Hanukkah letters recorded in 2 Macc. 1:1-10 were originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew, but only a Greek version survives, so it is possible that the original epistolary greeting has been distorted or replaced in the translation process. Furthermore, the supposed parallel of 2 Macc. 1:1 is not exact, since the final words “true peace” are not part of the opening greeting (this phrase is separated from chairein by thirteen words) but constitute a different epistolary convention commonly found in the opening of letters, namely, the health wish.

Therefore neither Hellenistic nor Semitic letters provide an exact parallel to Paul’s opening greeting “Grace to you and peace.” This makes it difficult to explain the origin of the apostle’s salutation. Here some see Paul’s indebtedness to his Jewish background and claim he is borrowing or adapting the expression “mercy and peace” current in some Jewish writings (see Frame 1912: 72; Bruce 1982: 8; Richard 1995: 39; Malherbe 2000: 100). But in light of the problems with the claimed Jewish parallels cited above, it is more likely that the apostle takes the typically secular or Greek greeting chairein and “Christianizes” it into the similar-sounding charis (grace; so, e.g., Koskenniemi 1956: 162; Best 1977: 63; Marshall 1983: 49; Morris 1991: 37; Taatz 1991; Fee [2009: 17] calls this “a marvelous example of Paul’s ‘turning into gospel’ everything he sets his hand to”). Thus Paul adds charis to the typically Jewish greeting “peace” so that the new combination of “Grace and peace” results in a salutation that is truly inclusive of his Gentile Christian and Jewish Christian audience. Here in the letter opening, Paul’s skillful adaptation is similar to what he does in the letter closing, where he replaces the “farewell wish” that typically brings secular or Greek letters to a definitive close with a distinctively Christian formula, the “grace benediction” (“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you”), which performs the same function.

The change from “Greetings” (chairein) to “Grace” (charis) may be slight in sound but is significant in sense. For, as with the prepositional phrase that precedes it (“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”), it evokes the crucial role of the Divine in the readers’ salvation. Grace is the supreme gift of God’s undeserved favor given to the Thessalonians by virtue of their relationship with Christ. Or, as Paul will put it later in the letter, it is God’s work of electing them (1:4), of rescuing them from the coming wrath (1:10), of destining them for the obtaining of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ (5:9). “Peace,” or shalom, similarly evokes the work of God in the Thessalonians’ lives. Peace involves not the Greek sense of the absence of conflict but the Jewish notion of wholeness—a restoration of the fellowship and harmony that before the fall characterized humankind’s relationship with God, with each other, and with the creation (see Rom. 2:10; 8:6; 14:17; Eph. 6:15; W. Foerster, TDNT 2:402-8).

Additional Note

1:1. After the opening greeting “Grace and peace,” several MS(S) including some important ancient ones, add the prepositional phrase “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (so א A [D] I vgmss syh** bo). Nevertheless, the short reading enjoys textual support from both Alexandrian and Western text types (B F G Ψ 0278 629 1739 1881 pc lat syp sa). Furthermore, there would be no compelling reason why copyists would delete the longer reading if it were original. Instead, the longer reading is almost certainly a later addition that attempts to make this brief greeting conform to the lengthier greeting found in Paul’s other letters (so B. Metzger 1994: 561).