Commentary on First Thessalonians

Consider the images invoked by mentioning the apostle Paul. Perhaps it is a street-corner evangelist, tugging at sleeves and shouting after passersby in Corinth. Or is Paul pacing the floor, struggling to find the right words for a letter to Christians at Philippi? Perhaps the Paul who comes to mind has taken up residence in a prison cell in Ephesus or Jerusalem or Rome. Whatever his activity and location in our imagination, one dominant image of Paul is that of an early Christian soloist, a virtuoso apostle roaming the ancient Mediterranean world in search of potential converts. On this scenario, his companions, if there are such, slip far into the background, and the Christian communities Paul initiates are little more than passive receptacles for his preaching.

This image owes much to the high regard Christians have had for Paul’s letters and to Luke’s stories in the Acts of the Apostles, but it also overlooks important elements in Paul’s letters. Even in the first verses of 1 Thessalonians, a different picture of Paul emerges. Here Paul is by no means a solo performer. He is part of a team, as is clear from the initial verse of the letter. More important, here Paul speaks of evangelism as something that transforms both evangelist and evangelized (vv. 2–10; see also 2:1–12).

“Grace to You and Peace”

1 Thessalonians 1:1

Little in the opening of a letter catches our attention. At most, we may quickly check to see that it bears our name instead of that of another family member or a neighbor. We rush past the greeting and opening lines to discover what is actually at stake. Does this letter concern a family in turmoil, a bill unpaid, an illness diagnosed? Given modern epistolary conventions, such haste may be understandable, but reading the opening of biblical letters with the same dispatch creates serious problems. The salutation (1:1) provides important clues about the persons involved in the letter, their relationships, and their locations. It invites us to read the letter through the eyes of those persons and their ongoing conversation with one another.

Even from the meager wording of this initial greeting, we can detect evidence of a good deal of unfinished business between the senders of this letter and the “church of the Thessalonians.” As the letter unfolds, we learn that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy together made an initial visit to Thessalonica, where they preached and taught the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some Thessalonians (we have no way of ascertaining how many) “turned to God from idols” (1:9) and joined these apostles in their expectation of the return of God’s son, Jesus Christ. Following the apostles’ departure, Paul found himself unable to go back to Thessalonica (2:17–20) and sent Timothy to learn how the Thessalonian believers were faring. He has now returned to Paul and Silvanus, and it is Timothy’s news that appears to prompt the writing of the letter. (This sketch of the letter’s comments stands in tension with the story in Acts 17, but priority will be given to Paul’s letters in adjudicating these details; see Introduction, and see commentary on 2:17–3:10.)

Whatever the historical events surrounding the writing of this letter, it is important to notice the presence of all three names in the salutation. The naming of these three persons might mean that all three took part in the composition of the letter (that 1 Thessalonians was written by committee?), but later it seems evident that the strongest voice is that of Paul (see 2:18; 3:5; 5:27). Whatever the facts of composition, the Introduction of the gospel in Thessalonica was not the work of a single individual but of a team. Not only do Silvanus and Timothy join Paul in sending the letter, but they joined Paul in the initial work in Thessalonica (1:2–2:12) and continue in profound concern for the ongoing life of the Christian community in that place (2:17–3:10). As surprising as it will be to those accustomed to the specialized meaning of the term “apostle” elsewhere in the New Testament, all three are referred to in 2:7 as “apostles of Christ” (see on 2:1–12).

The recipients of the letter are identified simply as “the church of the Thessalonians.” Since we associate the word “church” with structured organizations that go well beyond the local community, it might be better to think of the Greek word ekklēsia as a “gathering” or an “association.” The phrase “of the Thessalonians” is distinctive, since the later Pauline letters address the church “in Corinth” or “the churches of Galatia.” This phrase also reinforces the translation “association”; the letter addresses the group of Thessalonians who have come to share the senders’ convictions about Jesus Christ.

The next phrase raises a number of questions. Does “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” describe the church itself (that is, the church has its location in God and Jesus), or does it describe Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, who write by means of God and Jesus Christ? The Greek can be translated either way. And what are we to make of the relationship between “God the Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ”? Are the titles “Father” and “Lord” synonymous? Does “Father” here refer to God as the father of Jesus Christ or as the father of all creatures? Such subtle distinctions quickly grow dizzying for many readers. Far more important than resolving them is lingering over the too obvious but often neglected point: God and Jesus Christ are the primary agents in the Thessalonian church. Whatever Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy began, whatever the Thessalonians themselves have accomplished, it is God who is to be thanked (1:2), God who directs and strengthens the church (3:11–13), God who is and will remain faithful (5:24). The letter reveals much about the relationship between the apostles and the Thessalonians, and it has much to suggest about relationships among Christians in the present, but none of that can be understood apart from “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Even in this, the earliest of his letters, Paul departs somewhat from the letter style conventional in his time. Instead of completing the salutation with “Greetings,” Paul writes “Grace to you and peace” (see also Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:3; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 1:2; Philemon 3). Whether intentional or not, the alteration is significant. Although there are many elements of friendship in this letter, it is not merely a letter from friends to friends, as the word “greeting” might imply. This particular friendship comes into being by virtue of the action of God in Jesus Christ, the same God whose promises include grace and peace.

Verse 1 deserves our sustained attention, then, not simply because it provides us with historical lenses through which to read what follows. Without going even a single line further, we know already that this association, however much it may gather like-minded people, is not in the first instance a social event, a civic club, or a philanthropic organization. It exists only in relationship to “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Few sermons would confine themselves to a single verse in a letter salutation, yet this one offers an important reminder about who the church is.