Paul's letter to the Thessalonians

These letters are seen as the earliest of Paul's letters to Christian groups to be included in the Bible and, like the other letters, come alive when read with some educated guesses about the situation in Thessaloniki around 40 AD in mind.

Thessaloniki was a large seaport, which would have been culturally and religiously a very diverse community, and it had a degree of political freedom within the Roman empire. Paul had visited the city and preached in the synagogue and publicly as he usually did. He aroused some strong opposition from the city authorities - almost certainly his message was seen as a threat to the political stability of the city and the empire - and he was forced to leave rapidly, leaving behind a group of converts who suffered persecution as a result of their new commitments. The letters are a direct response to this, giving support, encouragement and teaching to a group under severe pressure.

Paul does this in ways that are not surprising - he praises the courage of the group in the past, encourages them to hold on to their experience of conversion to the Gospel and to the hope that that gives them - and says, perhaps most importantly, that he shares in their present experience of suffering. But he also writes with an awareness that the day of God's judgement is close - and this is much more difficult for us to grasp when reading letters.

This perspective gives for Paul an urgency about building a secure and loving community where the day of judgement can be prepared for. The Thessalonians had been concerned about the fate of members of their community who had died, possibly under persecution, and Paul reassures them that their friends are not excluded from the new creation he saw God bringing to being.

Our perspective, in the light of a very different understanding of the world around us, cannot be the same as Paul's, but I see some of the themes of his letters as still important - other readers of the letters will respond to different aspects of what Paul wrote. He has a strong sense of the transforming power of God at work in the life of the Thessalonian community and encourages them to have hope in that. This hope is the resource that the group has in facing situations of pain and suffering. For Paul, the quality of the community and individual lives of the Thessalonians, as an expression of that hope, and as a place in which God is seen at work in the world, is crucially important. He is writing using all his persuasive power to encourage the growth of loving and mutual relationships within the community.

Anne Lockwood
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997