Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The Thessalonian Epistles


The First Epistle

Thessalonica was situated on the Thermaic Gulf, a fine harbor, affording anchorage for large ships directly in front of the city. The situation commanded the trade of the Macedonian waters, and was connected inland with the plain of the Axius, one of the great levels of Macedonia, and with the plain of the Strymon, by a pass across the peninsula of Chalcidice. It was the chief station on the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road which ran from Dyrrhachium through Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace to Byzantium.

In Paul's day it was a free city, the capital of the whole province and the most populous of its towns. Its extensive trade with all parts of the world accounts in part for the rapid spread of the news of the success of the gospel (1Th_1:8). The population consisted of the original Graeco-Macedonian inhabitants, mixed with many Romans and some Jews. The same heathen deities were worshipped as in other Graeco-Roman communities, and the worship of the Cabeiri had been introduced from Samothrace.

Paul's first visit to Thessalonica is related in Acts 17; and the account must be filled out, as far as possible, by means of the references in the two letters. From the Acts it appears that he remained only three weeks; but the first Epistle indicates that a large and flourishing church had been formed, chiefly of Gentiles (1Th_1:8, 1Th_1:9); and from this, and from the facts that the Philippians, twice during his stay, sent him pecuniary aid (Phi_4:16), and that he labored for his own support, his visit would seem to have been longer.

According to the narrative in Acts, he secured some converts from among the Jews, but more from the pious Greeks or Proselytes, and many prominent women. Nothing is said of his labors among the heathen. The author of the Acts has, apparently, recorded the least important part of his work, which was evidently begun, according to his usual practice, in the synagogue. The principal part of it, however, was not done in the synagogue.

The cause of Paul's departure from Thessalonica was a persecution instigated by the Jews, who used the vulgar pagan rabble as their instruments. Most of the Christian converts were from the better classes, and the Politarchs were not disposed to interfere actively. But the riot was a serious matter. A powerful, dangerous, lasting sentiment was aroused in the class which fostered it (see 1Th_2:14). The charge against Paul was that of treason against the Emperor, and the Politarchs were forced to take active measures lest they should incur the charge of condoning treason. Their course was the mildest for which they could find precedent. The accused were bound over to keep the peace, and as security was exacted from Jason and the leading Christians of Thessalonica, it implied that they were under obligation to prevent Paul from coming to the city again.

Paul, after his departure, was distressed, lest his converts, who had been only partially instructed, might fall from their faith. He had twice made the attempt to revisit them, but in vain. He had sent Timothy to inquire into their condition and to establish and comfort them (1Th_3:2). Timothy had now rejoined him at Corinth, and the information which he brought called forth the first letter.

The letter, though official, is not stiff nor condescending. It reveals a quick, intelligent sympathy with the burdens and sufferings of the church, and a full appreciation of their patience and fidelity. They are the subject of the Apostle's thoughts, wishes, and prayers; they are his joy and his crown. The tone of the Epistle, while peculiarly affectionate, is nevertheless decided, and exacting in moral demand. It has nothing of the legal or ecclesiastical character. It is pervaded, in parts, with the tension and anxiety of the interval between Paul's departure from Thessalonica and the reception of Timothy's report. Timothy's news had been substantially good. The church had remained true to the faith against all assaults. But a degree of mistrust had arisen concerning the sincerity of Paul's interest for the church, which must have come from the outside. Accordingly in the second chapter he takes on an apologetic tone. Some lack of religious steadfastness among the members has made itself evident, and some signs of not fully appreciating the relations of their faith to Christian morality. There has arisen a tendency to assume that the second coming of Christ is close at hand, and that all old relations and duties are therefore done away. On the other hand, an opposite tendency has shown itself, a reaction against the enthusiasm evoked by the expectation of the parousia, which calls for the admonitions, “Quench not the spirit: despise not prophesyings: prove all things: hold fast that which is good.” Mistakes have become current respecting the lot of such Christians as may die before the Lord's coming. There is a possible hint of strained relations with the church-superintendents (1Th_5:12-15) and of occasions given to the enemies of Christianity for malicious criticism (1Th_4:12). But the main objects of the letter are, to strengthen the bond between the writer and the church, to detach the church from the errors and abominations of heathen life, and to correct misunderstandings and give comfort as regards the dead in Christ.

The language of the letter is simple, taking on a rhetorical character only in certain isolated passages (1Th_2:19 f.; 1Th_3:8 f.). It is not without picturesqueness (1Th_1:8, 1Th_1:9; 1Th_2:1, 1Th_2:6, 1Th_2:16, 1Th_2:17, 1Th_2:19; 1Th_3:3, 1Th_3:8, 1Th_3:11; 1Th_4:1, 1Th_4:6, 1Th_4:12; 1Th_5:2, 1Th_5:3, 1Th_5:5, 1Th_5:8, 1Th_5:19). There is an occasional tendency to amplification (1Th_1:2 f., 8; 1Th_2:11, 1Th_2:13; 1Th_3:2, 1Th_3:7, 1Th_3:9, 1Th_3:10; 1Th_3:1, 1Th_3:3, 1Th_3:5, 23, etc.), and to round off the ends of sentences with adverbial phrases (1Th_1:5, 1Th_1:6; 1Th_2:2, 1Th_2:16, 1Th_2:17; 1Th_3:3, 1Th_3:9, etc.). There is to be noted the frequent introduction of expressions which recognize the knowledge and remembrance of the writer's correspondents, as καθὼς οἴδατε even as ye know: also the forms of adjuration and comparison (1Th_2:5, 1Th_2:10; 1Th_3:6). A certain ruggedness and lack of symmetry in the structure of sentences appears at times (1Th_1:2 ff., 1Th_1:8; 1Th_2:10 ff., 1Th_2:17 f., 1Th_2:19 f.; 1Th_4:1 f., 1Th_4:3 ff.). The vocabulary is relatively small. Repetitions and similarities of expression occur.

There are no citations from the Old Testament, and no use of apocryphal writings can be shown. The mode of expression is thoroughly Pauline. The character of the Epistle does not lead us to expect many of the technical terms of the Pauline dogmatic; but such as we do find are Pauline, as ἐκλογή election; καλεῖν to call; ἅγιοι saints; ἁγιασμός sanctification; μὴ εἰδότες τὸν Θεόν not knowing God. There are also to be noted the characteristic play of words (1Th_2:4); paradox (1Th_1:6); mixed metaphor (1Th_5:5), and antithesis of prepositions (1Th_1:5; 1Th_4:7; 1Th_2:3, etc.). There are relatively few hapaxlegomena, some peculiar uses of words common in the New Testament; possibly a dozen words and modes of expression which appear only in the deutero-Pauline writings, and a few which are almost exclusively confined to the writings of Luke and the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The authenticity of the Epistle is generally conceded. It has been assailed by Baur, Steck, Holsten, and Loman.

The Second Epistle

The authenticity and genuineness of this Epistle have been challenged since the beginning of the present century. Its integrity has also been questioned on the assumed ground of a combination of a genuine Pauline epistle with interpolated matter (P. W. Schmidt). It has been ascribed to Timothy. Attempts have also been made to prove that it was earlier in date than the first Epistle (Ewald, Baur, Davidson); but there seems to be, on the whole, no sufficient reason for refusing it a place among the genuine Pauline Epistles. The external testimony in its favor is ancient and good, while the resemblances in manner and phraseology to the other Pauline writings cannot be evaded. The vocabulary is Pauline. The list of non-Pauline words is small and not important. As distinguished from all other Pauline letters, the two Thessalonian epistles exhibit a striking relationship, extending to sequences of thought, articulation of sentences, and peculiar expressions and usages. In not a few cases, the same subjects are treated with almost the same words. Both letters have an eschatological drift; both exhibit, without specially emphasizing it, the writer's apostolic consciousness; both treat moral questions from the religious point of view.

The second Epistle appears to have been written some months after the first, because of some later information received by Paul, who was probably still in Corinth. The circumstances of the church were substantially the same, although there appears to have been a growth in faith and charity (2Th_1:3, 2Th_1:4); but the idea of the imminent second coming of the Lord had assumed such proportions as to cause restlessness and impatience, and a measure of social disorganization and fanaticism. A spurious epistle in Paul's name, announcing the immediate advent of the Lord, appears to have been circulated (2Th_2:2). The main design of this second letter is to correct false views concerning the second advent, and to rebuke the idleness and disorder into which some of the Thessalonian Christians had fallen. 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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