God in the City – 1 Thessalonians 1:1

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.

With tripartite authorship, the apostle Paul being primary, this letter is one of the earliest of his writings (competing with his epistle to the Galatians for first honors). Dating to A.D. 50–52, within twenty years of Christ’s ascension, he writes during his second mission tour. He had come across the Aegean Sea from what is present-day Turkey to Macedonia (present day northern Greece) and after visiting Philippi he established the church in Thessalonica, a large, thriving provincial capital city. He then traveled to Berea and on to southern Greece (Acts 16:11–18:1).

Despite its early date and Paul’s brief time in the Thessalonica, this letter reveals that those young believers had a fairly advanced understanding of Christian doctrine and Christ’s return. Their understanding rested squarely on the prophecies of Jesus that “I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3, see also 14:18, 16:16) and the angelic announcement at His ascension, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11a). The early church took these things quite literally.

Paul’s modus operandi seemed to focus on larger cities, from which the gospel could radiate to smaller outlying areas. Thessalonica is a prime example: it was situated on a natural sea harbor and on a major east-west Roman land route that made travel and trade throughout the empire highly accessible. In Paul’s time, the population was between 65,000 and 100,000 strong. The city enjoyed favorable status with Rome, and was often the place where former Roman soldiers were rewarded with land grants for their years of service.

The city’s religious pluralism can be seen in Paul’s comment that many of the believers had “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9). The social implications of conversion to Christianity were no small thing in view of the intermixing of religion, politics, and society.

A large Jewish population residing there (Acts 17:1–9) became the front line of persecution against the believers (1 Thess. 2:14). But they grew strong under the influence of Silvanus and Timothy, whom Paul left there while he moved south to Athens and Corinth (Acts 17:13–14). From the latter, Paul wrote back to the new church at Thessalonica, around A.D. 50–52.

Lord, You have brought the truth into our physical time and space and not left it in the esoteric, philosophical other-world realms disconnected from real life.


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